‘Industrial ecology’ can help cut waste, says UMR researcher

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On April 13, 2004

Many of the 2 million cell phones, computers and other electronic products Americans discard each year could have a second life if they were designed for disassembly and reuse, says a UMR researcher who specializes in industrial ecology.

Venkata Allada is studying ways to design products to reduce waste.

By adopting "sustainable product development" practices, companies could reduce the amount of electronic waste on a "systems level" — that is, at the production line — by designing products that can be easily disassembled for reuse, recycling or servicing once they end their "end-of-life usefulness," says Dr. Venkata Allada, an associate professor of engineering management at UMR.

Only about 25 percent of the natural resources that go into the manufacturing process come out as goods and services, says Allada. The other 75 percent is waste.

By studying various products already being remanufactured or designed for ease of disassembly — such as single-use cameras, printer toner cartridges, automobile engines and household appliances — Allada hopes to develop design guidelines companies can use for a wide range of products. He has been working in the field of industrial ecology for more than seven years. His research has been funded by AT&T Industrial Ecology Faculty Fellowships.

Discarded products are a growing environmental threat. The National Safety Council reports that about 63.3 million desktop computers were discarded in 2002, and 85 percent of them ended up in landfills across the country. By 2007, the National Recycling Coalition estimates, nearly 500 million computers — almost two computers for each person in the United States — will become obsolete. According to a 2000 Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report, only about 9 percent of discarded electronic material is recycled or reclaimed for reuse in manufacturing; the rest contributes to the lead, cadmium and mercury contamination in the nation’s soils. Television and computer monitors contain about four pounds of lead, and the leading source of mercury in municipal waste is consumer electronics, according to the EPA.

One of the goals of this research is what Allada calls "product platforming." This involves looking at how products evolve in order to create more standardized designs and parts. This platforming would result in products that can communicate easily with other products, across manufacturers. For example, the telephone has evolved from a stand-alone product to one that must communicate with computers, faxes, and copiers. "What’s important in product fitness isn’t the individual product, but the whole system," Allada says. "To talk about sustainability, you have to look at the interaction among products."

Allada’s efforts are focused on "mechanical and electro-mechanical consumer products, such as computers, engines, printers, coffee makers, lawn mowers, etc. The design guidelines are general enough to be applied to a large group of such products."

Product "sustainability" carries with it the theory that because products were made by humans, they have human characteristics. "Sustainability is group behavior," Allada says.

Allada’s research suggests that all products can reach a higher level of existence, so to speak, whereby they are all working and communicating in the most efficient, cost-effective and environmentally friendly ways.

To make it all work, companies must be willing to put in place an infrastructure that supports product development, service, and disassembly. Any kind of product or part standardization is difficult, according to Allada, because of the proprietary issues involved. Further, companies can only remanufacture products if the process is economical.

"In order to reuse parts or recycle them, they have to be disassembled. Disassembly is usually done manually, resulting in higher labor costs. The idea is how to design products that are easy to disassemble," says Allada.

In a perfect world, many products could be reused, Allada says, but product cost and customer satisfaction have to be considered. "I do not think that it is suitable for all products. The bottom line is that reuse (or remanufactured products) has to make sense in satisfying the customer needs in terms of product functionality, as well as cost."

Remanufacturing can give consumers the satisfaction of contributing to a cleaner environment, but also the possibility of longer-lasting and cheaper products in the future. Some consumers might even be able to use remanufactured products. For example, in areas where technology is less advanced, people could use outdated computers that have been remanufactured, says Allada. This research may also make products like cars easier to service, saving the consumer money on labor.

A world designed for product sustainability is one that can only survive with the right economic and environmental keys in place, says Allada. "This process not only has to be environmentally sound, but economically sound for companies," he says.

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On April 13, 2004. Posted in Research