This article is from the Electronics Spotlight: Emerging Issues for Electronics Recycling session during ISRI2021. Many of the programs available in ISRI2021 will remain available to convention registrants through May 20 on demand. The exhibit hall will remain open during that time as well. 

“It doesn’t seem too long ago that talking to someone anywhere on the planet was something you saw in Star Trek. Now we take it for granted,” says Craig Boswell, ISRI’s electronics division director, and co-founder and president of HOBI International. Just as the cellphone continues to evolve, the electronics industry is undergoing rapid changes. This ISRI2021 session, moderated by Boswell, explored what electronics recyclers can expect for the future. Speakers Walter Alcorn, vice president of environmental affairs and industry sustainability at the Consumer Technology Association; Adina Renee Adler, ISRI’s vice president of advocacy; and Russ Ernst, executive vice president for products and technology at Blancco, discussed emerging issues in the electronics industry.

“One of the constants in the electronics industry is change,” Alcorn says, describing the implementation of technology in agriculture. Software-and-sensing technology is improving; for example, artificial intelligence can sense and de-weed entire fields without human intervention. Armed with sensors, drone technologies can determine which crops need to be watered and identify diseases a human eye may miss. Software rather than materials often are driving changes in the industry. “We’re seeing a shift in our industry and the economy away from valuing tangible materials to intangibles like software, services, and connections to networks,” Alcorn says.

Technologies and consumer demand are driving those changing values. “We’re seeing long-term trends in using less material and consumers demanding the use of lighter products,” Alcorn explains. Environmental Protection Agency data on state electronics recycling programs shows the weight of electronics collected for recycling declined over the last 5-6 years. Alcorn expects the industry will see innovations driven by consumer demand for more convenience and functionality. “But I’m not sure how it will play out in specific markets,” he adds. 

Electronics & the Basel Convention

Adler discussed two recent proposals to the Basel Convention that may affect electronics recyclers. The convention tracks the transboundary movements of hazardous waste and their disposal. It subjects hazardous waste and other waste with hazardous components to a controlled procedure in which products traveling between countries must obtain prior informed consent, allowing the recipient country to accept or reject the products.

Switzerland and Ghana have submitted a proposal to control all hazardous and nonhazardous electronics. Currently, the convention doesn’t control nonhazardous, end-of-life electronics. If the measure passes, all electronics—no matter their characteristics—would require the prior-informed-consent procedure. “It’s an administrative burden to exporters and to governments managing those requests,” Adler says. If it’s passed, the U.S. would be banned from trading any electronics to secondary markets covered by the convention.

The EU proposed a new recovery code (R code) to Annex VI for repair and refurbishment operations. If approved, a product traveling to another country for repair or refurbishment would require an R20 code on the documentation. This requirement would have significant implications for electronics recyclers. Anything controlled by the Basel Convention is waste by definition. An R code specific to repair or refurbishment would mean the traveling product is deemed “waste.” This could cause confusion, as different countries define “waste” and “products” differently, Adler says.

If both proposal pass, all electronics would be controlled, and all electronics going to countries for repair or refurbishment would be considered waste. ISRI has submitted comments on both proposals. The association argued that interpreting end-of-life electronics as wastes rather than products would impair achieving a circular economy. ISRI noted the proposals cut off opportunities to extend end-of-life products, leading to more electronics in landfills and increased raw material extraction. ISRI also pointed to the importance of bridging the digital divide. Technology would help developing countries increase economic efficiency, but many nations can’t afford the latest generation of products. “They may not be able to afford an iPhone 12, but they could afford an iPhone 7, which is older, but works,” Adler says. Controlling the movement of all electronics between countries would make it difficult for recyclers to provide countries with those products.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the next conference of parties was postponed to spring or summer 2022. “There will be more opportunities for us to engage with governments and explain our arguments,” Adler says.

Data Security and Automation

Considering enterprise security, Ernst recalls the saying, “Why do bank robbers rob banks? Because that’s where the money is.” It’s a similar story for data breaches. “The money is in the data itself,” he says. Data sanitization is a core component of any enterprise’s data-security policy. There are three methods to permanently remove or destroy data stored on a memory device to make it unrecoverable: physical destruction, cryptographic erasure, and data erasure.

Physical destruction provides adequate security but reduces resale value. Cryptographic erasure and data erasure provide data security and allow the device to return to the circular economy. For cryptographic erasure, the asset’s encryption key is removed to render the data inaccessible. Traditional software data erasure involves overriding data to make it inaccessible. Data sanitization is a three-step process: “Eliminate the data; verify erasure algorithm took place; and then report on it,” Ernst says.

Because more people are working from home during the pandemic, organizations are concerned that data is being stored on a range of devices. “This is a concern for data security: data baring assets themselves; having a secure VPN; getting access to data transferred across networks; and other data security implications,” Ernst says.

An effective software-based data-sanitization process that ensures data is secure and minimizes environmental impact can meet these challenges. Automation can put into use best practices for high-volume asset processors. While high labor costs or inconsistent processes at warehouses may lead to human error, automation can reduce human error, and address different processes and business rules.

Photo Caption: (Clockwise from upper left) Craig Boswell, ISRI’s Electronics Division Director and co-founder and president of HOBI International Inc., Adina Renee Adler, ISRI’s vice president of advocacy, Russ Ernst, executive vice president for products and technology at Blancco, and Walter Alcorn, vice president of environmental affairs and industry sustainability at the Consumer Technology Association, discuss emerging issues in the electronics industry.



Hannah Zuckerman

Hannah Zuckerman

Hannah is a Writer & Editor for ISRI's Scrap News. She's interested in a wide range of topics in the recycling industry and is always eager to learn more. She graduated from Bryn Mawr College, where she majored in History and a minored in Creative Writing. She lives in Arlington, Virginia with her husband.