Efforts Grow to Design for Disassembly

November 19, 2007

Keep an eye on design for recycling. It’s long been a backburner issue at the great majority of American companies, but that may change.

Two new directives require companies to take responsibility for their products sold in the European Union after their useful life. The Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive (WEEE), which was enacted as European Union Law in 2003 along with RoHS, is finally starting to grab hold after member states dragged their heels on implementation.

OEMs, distributors and others are required to develop an infrastructure to collect computers, household appliances, cell phones, lighting equipment, medical equipment and other electronic waste and then to recycle or re-use as much of the material as possible. The law became effective in the United Kingdom on July 1. Manufacturers are paying a fee to cover the cost of collection and recycling of goods they produce.

Producers in countries such as Germany are already taking responsibility for post-consumer waste by collecting products at municipal waste sites. It behooves them to make their products as recycleable as possible to reduce costs of the process.

Three states in the U.S. have promulgated electrical waste legislation and bills are pending in a dozen others. The most important law, in California, requires consumers to pay a recycling fee at the time of purchase and does not create an incentive for OEMs to design products differently.

The European Union (EU) is also ramping up recycling targets in its End-of-Life vehicle directive from 75 to 95 percent through 2015. Another factor that will encourage design for recycling is the soaring cost of materials. Price escalation in aluminum, steel, copper and zinc is “ scary,” says Bo Andersson, General Motors’ top buyer. While GM is already a leading recycler, the economic incentive is growing for other OEMs.

Hewlett Packard’s Headstart

One of the leaders in design for disassembly and recycling globally is Hewlett Packard, one of the founding members of the European Recycling Platform , which is establishing the framework for WEEE compliance in much of Europe.

Hewlett Packard established a goal in 2004 to recycle 1 billion lb of electronic waste (including printer cartridges) and hit that target last summer, six months ahead of schedule. Its new target is another billion pounds by the end of 2010.

“Starting 15 years ago there was very conscious effort to design products so that they could be recycled,” says John Frey, who chairs HP’s Environmental Strategies Council. “And the reason for that is we had started recycling 20 years ago and we were running into difficulties with the ways things were put together.

In HP’s view, design for easier disassembly required embracing simpler solutions to assembly.

“We now use a common screw form factor all the way through,” says Frey. “In the good old days, subassemblies might have been held together with a Phillips head screw; main assemblies might have been held together with a flathead or a torque screw. So what we found in dissembling is that the person had to keep switching screw drivers.”

The cases for desktop PCs

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