Posted October 18, 2002 Atlanta
Now, many governments around the world are worried that their citizens might become modern-day Romans because of the heaps of trashed electronics clogging landfills.
Such "e-waste" -- discarded computers, televisions, cell phones, audio equipment and batteries -- leach lead and other substances that eventually can seep into groundwater supplies. Just one color computer monitor or television set can contain up to eight pounds of lead. An estimated 12 million tons of e-waste may soon be jamming American landfills, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Concern has reached such a level that some European countries are forcing manufacturers to take back discarded electronics, and in the United States, California and Massachusetts have banned their disposal in municipal solid waste landfills. But what then?
A study under way at the Georgia Institute of Technology -- in cooperation with the Pollution Prevention Assistance Division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the National Science Foundation -- may offer a model for other states and nations.
It is a "reverse production" system that designs infrastructure to recover and reuse every material contained within e-wastes -- metals such as lead, copper, aluminum and gold, and various plastics, glass and wire. Such a "closed loop" manufacturing and recovery system offers a win-win situation for everyone -- less of the Earth will be mined for raw materials, and groundwater will be protected.
But this simple concept requires a lot of brand new thinking, says Jane Ammons, a professor in the School of Industrial and Systems Engineering and a governor-appointed member of the Georgia Computer Equipment Disposal and Recycling Council. She and colleague Matthew Realff, an associate professor in the School of Chemical Engineering, are devising methods to plan reverse production systems that will collect e-trash, tear apart devices ("de-manufacture it") and use the components and materials again.
Though this system is designed for Georgia, its application elsewhere has sparked interest nationally and internationally, the researchers say. Officials in Taiwan and Belgium have consulted with the researchers, as have several multi-national electronics and logistics firms.