23 January 2013

A far from green bamboo computer

How one company’s plans to make a green computer caused a headache for the recyclers.
When the computer company Dell wanted to “go green” it alighted on “bamboo” as a neat environmentally friendly material. Had Dell stuck to what it called" “Nature’s Eco-friendly Packaging Solution” for the boxes that keep hardware safe during transit there might have been no complaints. After all, as it proclaimed, you can just “Toss that Bamboo Packaging into the Compost Pile”.

Unfortunately, the company’s designers didn’t stop there. In 2008, they launched what Dell called an “eco computer”, with a case made out of a bamboo based material that looks and behaves just like the ABS polymers used in other computers. You can’t just add that to your vegetable waste and throw it on the compost heap.

Nat Hunter, co-director for Design at the RSA (the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce), tells of going to a recycling plant in Kent. The plant takes old PCs and subjects them to “big rock crushers” – a wrecking ball – to reduce the obsolete computers to piles of rubble, a materials mine.

The waste then goes through sorting line to separate out the different materials for recycling. Unfortunately, Hunter explained at a recent meeting, the sorting system cannot tell the difference between the bamboo plastic and ordinary ABS plastic and shoves it into the same receptacle, thus polluting the real polymer waste.

As Hunter says, the bamboo PC completely failed in its attempts to be ‘eco friendly’. You buy it as a green computer but it ends up being "very problematic" for the recycling industry.

Hunter was talking about Dell’s foray into panda territory at a meeting put on by, among others, the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST). The meeting, back in January, marked publication of a POST Note Maximising the Value of Recycled Materials. Much of the event – more details here in a piece I wrote for the Materials Research Society in the USA – dealt with the business of recycling plastic, which often entails sorting a pile of mixed polymers, an increasingly sophisticated task made more difficult if the mixture harbours a polymer that masquerades as something else.

Hunter, who is a part of the team behind The Great Recovery – Redesigning the future, a project funded by the Technology Strategy Board, tackled a broader theme, designing manufactured goods to be green from the start. She takes the line that “waste really is a design flaw”.

Designers need to put a lot more effort into thinking about the fate of their products. Dell isn’t the only electronics company in her sights. Hunter, who has spent time watching the recyclers in action, also tells the tale of TVs from Philips that comes with 300 screws holding it together, “all of them different”. By contrast, Samsung makes TVs with half as many screws, all of them the same. Much easier to dismantle.

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