Electronic waste accounts for over 40 million metric tons of waste around the world annually and is responsible for 70% of heavy metals, 40% of lead, and up to 30% of polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) that ends up in landfills. This situation is not acceptable, much less sustainable. What makes electronic waste so complicated is the many different sizes, shapes, forms, and compositions of that waste and the fact that recycling does not often proceed in the responsible and safe manner to which we associate the word ‘recycling’. A great deal of electronic waste ends up in informal economies, recycled by workers who have improper training in the handling of that waste and inadequate resources to protect themselves and the environment during processing of e-waste. This project seeks to understand the types of electronic waste uniquely generated by academic research and education activity and create and use pathways to better collect, recycle, repurpose, and redirect this waste to a more sustainable “grave.”
Through the green seed grant program, we endeavor to redirect more volume and more types of electronic waste generated by research and teaching activity at the University of Washington to venues in which the ultimate fate of that waste minimizes harm to both ecosystem and public health. To accomplish this goal, we first seek to estimate the total volume of electronic waste generated by our institution and to understand the ultimate fate of that waste. By gaining a detailed understanding of what and how much goes where, we can devise pathways by which the University of Washington, as a source of this waste and as a leader in sustainable practices, can redirect and repurpose electronic waste to support a truly greener solution to electronic waste handling.
In our effort, we will investigate both existing pathways for disposing of and recycling electronic waste and new pathways that are best suited to the educational and sustainability goals of our institution. These pathways include but are not limited to building arts education kits using electronic components for K-16 audiences, repurposing electronic waste into robotics kits, and reusing working components and assemblies by initiating and maintaining a university-wide database of working but gently used electronics.
Our goal is to improve the roads down which electronic waste travels for greater sustainability. The volume and heterogeneous nature of electronic waste that stems from electrical engineering (and other departments who host electronics laboratories) makes no easy solution to this challenge, but as electrical engineers who understand both the function and the composition of our waste, we are well positioned to make meaningful contributions to improving existing electronic waste handling practices at our home university.