InnoCentive, EMC and EDF recently announced a new Eco-Challenge seeking solutions for tracking shipments of used electronic components and subsystems and ensuring that they are disposed of responsibly. Safe, legal and transparent e-waste disposal is an ongoing concern for both industry and environmental groups, which want to make sure heavy metals and chemicals are not released as part of the recycling process. We asked Kathrin Winkler, Vice President and Chief Sustainability Officer for EMC Corporation to tell us more about the Challenge.
Hi Kathrin – thanks for talking with us about your Challenge. Can you tell us why responsible e-waste disposal is such an important issue for EMC and for the electronics industry as a whole?
Certainly. Electronic waste actually contains a lot of material of value – particularly precious minerals like gold and copper. In fact, it is often said that a ton of eWaste contains more valuable metals than an equal amount of ore! The problem is that extracting this material needs to be done responsibly to protect human health and the environment. Too often, it ends up in the hands of informal workers – usually exported (often illegally) from developed economies to those still developing, but increasingly from waste generated in-country. These workers do not have the knowledge or resources to take proper precautions to protect their health and their environment. Or it finds its way into municipal landfills where some of the manmade substances in the equipment can have long-term environmental impacts. Another primary concern is data security. At EMC, people rely on us to set the bar in terms of protecting customer data, which includes secure disposal. Responsible disposal of eWaste helps ensure that data is secured, which benefits everyone.
Why is it so difficult to tracke-waste now?
There are really two major challenges to tracking eWaste. The first is that much of it is disposed of by the consumers or users of the equipment, and as vendors, we have no way to know what happens to it. The second challenge is that the disposal process itself involves many players, each of whom tends to break it down to smaller component parts that are mixed with material from other sources and then passed on to another processor.
How close do you think the industry can come to 100% trackable e-waste?
You know, I think it’s unlikely that we will ever be able to trace everything. Ideally, we can remove the need to trace eWaste if the proper incentives and solutions are put in place to manage it responsibly. I am a bigger fan of trying to solve the underlying problem, than simply attempting to control a process we don’t like. Unfortunately, we’re not there yet, so traceability is an important bridge until the underlying system is improved.
On the other hand, we have such a plethora of new tools available to us – from satellite data to Big Data analytics to new materials – that we may well have a breakthrough. I do think what may well arise is a means of either tracking sample streams rather than all of the eWaste, or else an approach to better understanding where it ended up without having to track its entire path. In that case, we’d hopefully have a handle on each end of the journey and could then reverse engineer the route it took.
Where do you think a solution to this problem might come from?
It’s probably most likely to come from an iconoclast – someone who sees patterns where others don’t – recognizing an analog from a completely different problem domain.
What do you plan to do with the solution?
Hard to say, without knowing what form it takes. First analyzing feasibility, hopefully performing a test or proof-of-concept, ideally with a partner or two. After that, results will determine the course of action. One thing we do know – if it’s a breakthrough idea that is broadly applicable to the market, we will want to share it!
Is there anything else you’d like our Solvers to know about your Challenge?
Yes. We have a grand vision, and it is more than stopping eWaste from going to developing countries. What we’d really like to see is an ecosystem of parties and economic model that allows eWaste processing to both be safe, and to provide economic opportunity in areas that depend on it for subsistence. And if we can create a financially sound model for recovering the maximum value from used electronics, we can do a better job of closing the loop and reducing the extraction of raw materials. This Challenge is an important step in a re-imagining the future!
Very interesting – thanks Kathrin and good luck with your Challenge!
This content is cross-posted on InnoCentive's Perspectives on Innovation blog.