Demanufacturing is the disassembly and recycling of consumer products that would be otherwise discarded. The goal is to remove and recycle every usable component in a device rather than just discarding it into a landfill and wasting otherwise reusable materials. For example, the motherboard and metal parts of a computer can be smelted to recover the metals, which can then be used to create new computers or other devices. The components in a computer monitor can be recycled and turned into a new monitor. The computer’s plastic housing can be melted down and then turned into a new computer or any other products made of plastic. The focus is on reusing all of the materials that make up the computer rather than throwing them away and wasting all of those resources.
Major manufacturers getting involved
Major manufacturers of items, from computer companies such as Dell to major automakers such as GM have bought into the idea of demanufacturing.
Lynn Scarlett, executive director of Reason Public Policy Institute, Los Angeles, California says, “Cannon has a cartridge take-back and demanufacturing program, Dell has a major take-back modular design and demanufacturing policy for its computers. Ford is working to convert old tires into new ones. GM has a bumper fascia takeback program. HP has a laser jet toner cartridge take-back and demanufacturing program. IBM has a material-recovery and demanufacturing program. Universal Appliance Recycling reconditions used appliances and Xerox has demanufacturing programs for its copiers and toner cartridges.”
“A recent EPA report on source reduction estimated that over the past decade, over 20 million tons of waste had been diverted from landfills through a whole variety of source reduction activities including demanufacturing,” Scarlett said. “This is no small potatoes.” Work by economist Lisa Skumatz on variable rate pricing (trash fees that vary by how much the consumer places out for collection) shows that source reduction increases noticeably under such programs.
Currently, automotive shredder residue (ASR) like glass, plastic and textiles, leftover after metals are recovered, go to landfills. Since about 40 percent of ASR is plastic, a procedure called “skin flotation” is being investigated by USCAR’s Vehicle Recycling Partnership, the American Plastics Council (APC) and Recovery Plastics International (RPI) of Salt Lake City, Utah.
In this process, chemicals are added to plastics in a hot-water bath that react only with certain plastics. Air bubbles will attach to the plastic and float. They are then skimmed off of the top of the water bath. The cost of the process is the major drawback.
Innovation in demanufacturing includes the use of plastic for fuel to melt down electronics in a California recycling plant. Air pollution is prevented through the use of “scrubbers” on smokestacks.
“Zero-landfill” demanufacturing is not only possible, but reportedly profitable with charges going to participating companies. In the area of dematerialization, companies are using nanotechnology to shrink batteries to the size of the period at the end of this sentence. The products they drive will also shrink accordingly. Fewer front-end materials obviously translate to fewer in the landfill.
Downside to regulations
Some people want to help the processes of demanufacturing along by regulatory means, even though this has a downside.
Scarlett, in The Green Hand of Progress, cites an example in California where regulations on recycled content in plastic bags deterred innovation that was creating thinner bags and , ultimately, fewer pounds of waste. Scarlett says that local and state governments are attempting to increase demanufacturing through what she calls “pay as you throw” programs.
“Minnesota has undertaken some pilot electronic equipment take-back programs, for example, in order to get a better understanding of cost,” Scarlett notes. “Subsidies, however, pose problems. First, many companies, have some market incentive to continue to invest in and explore opportunities for further demanufacturing. Under such circumstances, subsidies would be likely simply to support the less efficient, less competitive endeavors in demanufacturing.”
Demanufacturing safety concerns
Workers in electronics demanufacturing and CRT glass recycling operations may be exposed to heightened levels (near or above OSHA required limits) of lead, cadmium, chromium, barium and other heavy metals, as well as other workplace hazards. Through industrial hygiene programs and processing technologies, these risks can be mitigated to provide a work environment well within the levels permitted by OSHA standards.