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Evaluating the End-of-Life Phase of Consumer Electronics: Methods and Tools to Improve Product Design and Material Recovery


Rapid sales growth and technology advancements are generating a growing stream of consumer electronics products that are being placed on the market. Once these products are no longer useful to their current owners they become e-waste as they enter the end-of-life phase. For many years, the end-of-life phase has been ignored or overlooked due to its perceived low impact across the product life cycle. However, the growing concerns of the environmental burden of e-waste and the increased legislation that focuses on this life cycle phase, it is garnering more attention. To sustainably manage end-of-life electronic products, solutions should be developed that focus on the decisions made in the beginning and end of the product life cycle. To address this need, this research developed methods and tools to inform end-of-life strategies for consumer electronic products during the design and end-of-life phases of the product life cycle.

First, an assessment framework was developed to evaluate and characterize 14 material recovery facilities within the U.S. that process e-waste. The framework consists of five key categories that were used to conduct the assessment including, facility overview, operating model and process flows, product flows, collection methods, and facility resource use. The results of the assessment were used to conduct a material flow analysis to develop a representative set of end-of-life pathways (e.g., reuse, refurbish, recycle) in order to better understand the flow of e-waste within the end-of-life management industry in the U.S. A quantitative assessment of e-waste flows was conducted and insights into the mechanisms and pathways were identified. From the analysis, the majority of products collected at almost all facilities were mobile phones. This could be attributed to their short lifespans compared to other products. Based on the results of the material flow analysis of the products collected at each facility, the majority (over 80\%) followed the recycling end-of-life pathway. Laptop computers was identified as the primary product category that follows the reuse and refurbish pathways. While the majority of consumer electronic products are sold to the consumer sector, the results showed that over 60\% of products collected were from the business sector.

The second part of this work focused on product level solutions. Evaluating the recyclability of products is the most common method used by stakeholders in producer responsibility to determine the environmental performance of products in the end-of-life phase. A consumer electronic product recyclability model was developed to calculate the recyclable mass of the product and economic value of the recovered materials. The model is comprised of smaller component models and a database of the recycling efficiency and scrap value of materials used in electronic products. With the complexity of components and supplier based purchasing it is difficult for manufacturers to provide detailed material information at the product and component levels. In order to reduce the amount of data required to use the tool, the component models were developed for standard components found in consumer electronic products. A case study of a laptop was used to verify the model. From this, the recyclability of the laptop was determined to be 37% and the value of the recycled materials was $4.90.

This dissertation has developed methods that can be used to evaluate end-of-life electronic products at product and facility levels. There is a need for accurate assessments of process technologies at material recovery facilities to collect primary data to better inform and quantify product recyclability. With this data advanced modeling and process simulations tools could be developed that are utilized both by product designers and end-of-life practitioners.

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