The challenge of sustainable electronics: the durability vs recyclability of electronic devices

An image of electronics to demonstrate the concept of sustainable electronics
© iStock/Yuri_Arcurs

Does the desire to create recyclable electronic devices compromise their durability? The Georgia Institute of Technology has analysed the challenge of sustainable electronics.

One of the examples of sustainable electronics used by The Georgia Institute of Technology is photovoltaic solar panels.

The falling cost of solar power has led to a global boom in photovoltaic solar panels on rooftops and backyard solar farms. But the question remains, what happens to the solar panels at the end of their use? The researchers also asked the same question of sustainable electronics. What happens when recyclable electronics with even shorter life spans come to the end of their useful life?

Do recyclable devices have shorter life spans?

Beril Toktay, a professor at Georgia Tech’s Scheller College of Business, said: “There is a lot of concern in sustainability circles that manufacturers are making things with shorter and shorter life spans, and products are perhaps even intentionally made to become obsolete to induce replacement purchases.”

Toktay added:”What we have found is that sometimes when you design for recyclability, you give up on durability, and when durability is the goal, recyclability is sacrificed.”

Truly sustainable electronics

The researchers state that a recyclable and durable product would in theory be the pinnacle of environmentally responsible product design. An example they gave is automobiles with thicker metal frames which have more recyclable materials that are durable. The researchers emphasise that durability and recyclability of sustainable electronics should work together.

How should policy-making reflect the aims of recyclability and durability?

Atalay Atasu, a professor at the Scheller College of Business, explained: “From a policy-making perspective, there’s not a one-size-fits-all approach that will work…You really have to distinguish between different product categories to consider the recyclability and the durability implications and make sure that your policy isn’t conflicting with the objective.”

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