Enhancing the Sustainability of Electronic Waste Handling on the UW Seattle Campus

Total Amount Awarded: $50,433

Final report poster or presentation: View the PDF

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.  

Relevance to UW Sustainability Goals:

This effort is focused on contributing to the UW sustainability goal of reducing non-recoverable waste.  We seek to evolve our effort into an icon on the UW Sustainability Dashboard, titled  “Electronic Waste” as part of a combined effort among existing efforts to recover and process electronic waste responsibly and adding the portion of the waste stream that is generated by research and teaching activity but not recovered or handled appropriately.   We are not only seeking to reduce non-recoverable waste, but in the complex area of electronic waste handling, to identify best pathways for recycling, reusing, and repurposing this waste to minimize ultimate impact on public and ecosystem health.  


Goal #1

Identify the volume, nature, and range of the electronic waste stream that remains inappropriately captured or not captured at all on the Seattle, Bothell, and Tacoma campuses as a result of research and teaching activity.   Surveys to be completed by end of Winter Quarter 2015; discussions with (a) targeted laboratory technicians and support staff who are directly involved with the use of electronics in research and teaching and (b) representatives from UW Surplus and Total Reclaim, to be completed by end of Spring Quarter 2015. 

Goal #2

Design, implement, and pilot recycle and reuse stations for electronic waste to be placed in electronics-heavy environments on campus.  Prototype stations to be implemented by Spring Quarter 2015, evaluated during Spring 2015, revised during Summer 2015, and re-implemented (second generation design) in Fall 2015. 

Goal #3

Design seminars, recorded lectures, multimedia, and web pages that convey the importance of proper handling of electronic waste in the research and education context.   Seminar and web pages to be designed during Winter 2015.   Up to five seminars to be given in engineering at UW Seattle campus in Spring 2015.   Multimedia materials and web pages to be completed during Summer 2015.   Additional seminars to be given outside of engineering during Fall 2015.

Goal #4

Devise, build, pilot, and evaluate potential repurposing strategies for waste electronics that are not effectively captured by other means or that could be more effectively recovered using repurposing for education.   Design first educational activity (The Story of Electronic Waste, Engineering Style) and associated art kit during Winter 2015; pilot activity and kit during Engineering Discovery days in April 2015 to a broad K-16 audience.   Design additional educational activities and kits using repurposed electronic waste (including compelling, accurate, and accessible instructions for disposing of these kits as needed) during Summer 2015.  Pilot kits during Summer Youth program 2015 and for public school and home school families in Fall 2015.  

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This project was funded during the 2014-2015 academic year.