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issue: August 2005 APPLIANCE Magazine

The Open Door
Design for Recycling

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by Scott Horne, vice president of Government Affairs and general counsel, The Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, Inc.

Design engineers have a tough job—balancing safety, energy efficiency, and cost with the consumer’s passion for the latest and greatest technology.

Unfortunately, it seems that the design engineer rarely even gets to think about what will happen to the product at the end of its useful life. At most manufacturing companies, the folks in the environmental department are usually concerned with the product’s environmental impact, but even so, they are primarily focused on the manufacturing and operating life of that product.

Good intentions aside, it seems that most people don’t give much thought to what happens to a product when it has reached the end of life. We have simply relied on the scrap recycling industry to deal with that problem, and up to now, recyclers have done a good job. However, as time goes by and new materials and technologies are developed, the challenge that recyclers face in safely and economically recycling those products grows ever more difficult.

To address these challenges, the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) created the concept of Design for Recycling® to help protect the environment and create a sustainable means for conserving our resources. The concept seeks to achieve two goals: First, to eliminate or reduce the use of hazardous or toxic materials that may present a grave danger to the environment or put a recycler’s workforce in jeopardy, and second, to discourage the use of materials that are not recyclable or manufacturing techniques that make a product non-recyclable using current technologies. The best time to address these issues is at the design stage.

Addressing a product’s end-of-life at the very beginning helps to ensure a thriving recycling chain, which goes well beyond the scrap processor to the mill, smelter, or extruder, who will take the recycled materials and make them into new steel, copper, brass, aluminum, or plastics. Design for Recycling is a mindset that every design engineer must embrace if they hope to have their products considered environmentally friendly. The days of a manufacturing just concerning itself with the environmental impacts of its processes and its products during their useful lives are long gone.

ISRI’s concept was created in part to head off governmental mandates like the European Union’s Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive. ISRI has consistently advocated that manufacturers voluntarily adopt the principles of Design for Recycling to stave off governmental intervention. Only once, in the case of mercury switches used for turning convenience lights in automobile hoods and trunks, has ISRI sought governmental assistance in our efforts. When it became evident that these switches could jeopardize the environmental compliance and continued operations of America’s steel mills, we took action.

Over the years, our industry has faced significant challenges from materials such as cadmium, lead, and sodium azide, to name a few. In each instance, we have worked diligently with the industries that have used these materials to seek alternatives that will still meet their needs and satisfy the customers’ desires while still protecting the environment and workers involved in the recycling industry.

There’s more than environmental compliance at stake here. New materials that are being developed, such as graphite composites, pose a new threat to the recycling of products. As these new materials are introduced into products—displacing materials that have been recyclable for generations—they adversely affect the recyclability both practically and fiscally.

Even materials that are recyclable can pose a problem when used in combination with other materials. Take, for instance, a product that uses many different types of plastics. Today’s recycling technology is such that it is very difficult to mechanically segregate more than two different types of plastic, and hand sorting is simply not a cost-effective means of accomplishing the job. A product that utilizes six or more polymers effectively becomes non-recyclable, or at least the plastics fraction of that product will be non-recyclable.

In summary, unless there are compelling reasons to the contrary, manufactured products should not contain materials or processes that will interfere with or stop the product’s recyclability. Manufacturers need to take responsibility for their design choices. Sometimes, that may mean making financial commitments or providing technical support to help develop new technologies for recycling the materials they choose.

Manufacturers, the recycling industry, and governmental researchers should work cooperatively to accomplish these goals. In the end, manufacturers will face less regulatory action and their customers will benefit from products that are truly environmentally friendly. The recycling chain will continue to thrive and the recycling industry can continue its long history of conserving our future.


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