Electronics Recycling Industry Anticipates Shift as Devices Slim Down, Merge

Posted by on February 24, 2012

WP-Electoronics-Recycling-ShiftMore Gadgets Assembled from Plastic, Glass and Batteries

If you believe the numbers, change is on its way to the electronics recycling industry: 

  • Smartphone sales reached 115 million units in the third quarter of 2011, a 42 percent increase from the third quarter of 2010, according to Gartner, Inc. analysts.
  • Tablet shipments will climb to more than 95 million units in 2012, based on predictions from IT industry publication DigiTimes.
  • IHS iSuppli experts estimate cloud server shipments will surge to 875,000 in 2012, up a robust 35 percent from the 647,000 units shipped in 2011.

This rapid adoption of smartphones, tablets and cloud computing by businesses and consumers has revolutionized the way in which individuals work and play and fueled a growing appetite for greater connectivity, portability, productivity and speed.

To fulfill these various expectations, electronics manufacturers are using materials and technology to produce devices that are smaller, lighter and faster.

But in an industry where time and pounds are money, what will be the effect of this new reality? Here is a look at three trends that have the potential to reshape the electronics recycling industry.

Smaller and Lighter

As the above numbers suggest, the desire for the latest and greatest gadgets is unlikely to wane in the coming years. What will certainly change is the size and weight of these devices as the next generations make use of technological advances that boost battery performance and double chip speed and materials that improve durability without adding bulk.

Twenty years ago, the typical laptop tipped the scales at nine pounds. Today, both cell phones and laptops have slimmed down considerably.

And tablets, a category that emerged only two years ago and captivated consumers with a sleek design, instant-on convenience and long battery life, weigh just over a pound and accounted for about one quarter of mobile PC shipments last year, according to figures recently released by NPD DisplaySearch.

These upgrades allow newer devices to not only deliver the power, reliability, and speed that consumers expect, but they also tread more lightly on the environment. Fewer raw materials and less energy and water are needed to manufacture smaller electronics. Smaller electronics also need less packaging and fuel for shipping. All this results in a reduction in waste and carbon emissions.

While electronics continue to shrink, recyclers have had to adapt to processing a greater number of devices assembled from plastic, glass and batteries. In new products, batteries may account for nearly 50 percent of the device’s weight compared to less than one percent for an older PC.

Access to these batteries, which, along with other hazards, must be removed before the device is shredded, can be hampered by the use of glues or proprietary fasteners, calling for increased collaboration between recyclers and original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) to improve accessibility. The result is an increase in the time and effort to recycle a single pound of material.

Although ownership of smartphones and tablets is escalating, the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) acknowledges that these devices represent a small fraction of the total weight and volume of the electronics waste stream. Rather, cathode ray tube (CRT) monitors and televisions still represent nearly half of all electronics ready for end-of-life management, according to U.S. EPA estimates.

So Long Single Function, Hello Multifunction

Is it a camera, a phone, or a media player? Yes. The introduction of multifunction smartphones and tablets that enable users to take photos, watch movies or navigate to a destination, have ushered in a new age of device convergence. Tablets, which consolidate the functions of a netbook computer, eBook reader, media player and camera, are at the core of this trend.

The lines separating various electronic devices have become fuzzy as manufacturers have beefed up the functionality of their gadgets and some device categories—for example, portable navigation devices—are facing tough competition from GPS-enabled smartphones and may eventually vanish, according to data from IMS Research.

Research from NDP Group indicates that smart phones are having a similar effect on camera usage. The number of U.S. consumers taking photos and videos on their smartphones increased from 17 percent in 2010 to 27 percent in 2011, making smartphones the device of choice to capture memorable moments.

While there was a time when consumers may have owned a stand-alone digital camera, GPS, MP3 player or a portable gaming console, CEA reported that the number of electronic devices per household declined to 24 in 2011 from 25 in 2010, in part because of the consolidation of product functions.

What effect will this have on the electronics recycling industry? For now, legislative directives that set electronic waste collection targets and impose landfill bans, consumers who are increasingly aware of how to properly dispose of unwanted electronics and shorter product lifecycles will drive recycling volumes higher for the foreseeable future.

Forecast Calls for Clouds

Cloud computing—remote Internet-accessible data servers—is beginning to alter the way corporate IT services are delivered and managed. Proponents of cloud computing point out that it reduces costs, increases efficiency, enhances business agility and contributes to corporate sustainability.

Although some early challenges, including access, data security and reliability, have slowed full adoption, Gartner predicts that there will be 70 million virtual desktop users in two years and more than 50 percent of the world’s largest companies will have stored customer-sensitive data in the public cloud by the close of 2016. This shift to cloud computing coincides with a larger number of workers using mobile devices rather than desktops.

What can electronics recyclers expect from this transition to virtual computing? Businesses and government agencies will own and use less hardware. IT industry experts predict that as the cloud becomes more sophisticated the hardware needed to access it can become less so—most likely consisting of batteries, screens and cases—and the internal storage needs of these devices will also drop.

On the other hand, cloud service providers will become electronic waste generators as they replace data center servers and other network gear. IDC analysts estimate that 61 million pounds of x86 servers were recycled in 2010.

There is no question that the electronic waste stream is undergoing a transformation as consumers demonstrate a seemingly endless hunger for the next generation of thinner and lighter multifunction devices. But for now, millions of older, larger and heavier electronics are being, and will continue to be, recycled.

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