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MIT: Recycling of scrapped electronics studied

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.--MIT researchers have developed new metrics for assessing the performance of firms that recycle scrapped electronic equipment, a major source of toxic pollutants.

The metrics focus not just on how much of a firm's incoming waste is processed but also on the quality and reusability of the materials produced from it, a consideration critical to overall resource efficiency.

To assess the performance of electronics recycling firms, people have focused mainly on the most easily measured indicator: the fraction of a firm's incoming waste stream that ends up as landfill. But minimizing landfill is not enough, according to the MIT researchers.

"Recycling companies will tell their customers, 'Virtually none of your material is going to landfill.' While we recognize that that's important, we also know that not all end uses are equal," said Randolph E. Kirchain Jr., an assistant professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering and the Engineering Systems Division. "For example, it's preferable to take a pound of recovered plastic and use it to make new components than to use it as roadbed filler."

The quality of the recovered material determines its potential uses. If the quality is sufficiently high, the material can be reused by manufacturers, reducing the need to extract and consume new materials.

Almost a billion obsolete computers and other electronic devices are scrapped each year, and four out of five of them end up in basements or on sidewalks rather than in recycling facilities. But the electronics recycling business is expected to grow quickly. Regulations on handling large-scale electronics waste streams are becoming more stringent, and public concern is growing about the shipping of electronics to countries not equipped to handle toxic and hazardous materials.

Kirchain worked with Frank Field III, a senior research associate in the Center for Technology, Policy and In
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Contact: Elizabeth Thomson
thomson@mit.edu
617-258-5402
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
7-Oct-2004


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