Estimates suggest that by the end of 2001 there will be more than one billion mobile phones in operation around the world and researchers from Fraunhofer Institute think that it is merely a question of time until companies are obliged to accept the return of used electronic devices.
To prepare manufacturers the Fraunhofer Institute has developed the EE (Environmental Engineering) Toolbox, a device first developed for Reliability and Microintegration IZM in Berlin and said to represent an easy and rapid procedure to analyse and minimise the content of problematic materials.
Many manufacturers are already conducting studies on the service life of their products and are working on pre-production designs, which are said to be more environmentally compatible.
The Fraunhofer Institute has defined the first step of this realm of work as involving defining the type and quantity of constituent substances.
A mobile phone consists of various types of plastic amounting to more than half of the device’s weight. The heaviest metal element is copper whilst other components such as nickel, lead and silver account for one percent or less.
However, a phase-one evaluation of the materials in the Toolbox concerning toxicity to humans and the environment reveals a different picture. Heavy metals were found to be dominant, whereas the toxic levels of plastics are virtually negligible.
The process of replacing metals with less harmful alloys is believed to present its own challenges.
However, the Toolbox procedure enables manufacturers to recognise and address problems involved in product planning at an even earlier stage.
Furthermore, this procedure is said to identify particular requirements of recycling which in turn call for a step-up in development.
Nokia, the world’s largest manufacturer of mobile phones, has carried out a study using the IZM Toolbox. In the light of its findings, the company has optimised the design and production of its products.
‘After defining the toxic potential of materials, we use further functions of our Toolbox for practical evaluations’, stresses HansjÃ¶rg Griese of IZM. ‘We measure the amount of energy used in processing raw materials and manufacturing the devices.
The energy consumption of the device itself also represents a significant factor, as well as an environmental analysis of the various stages of recycling and the costs involved.’
In this way, a comprehensive picture of the life cycle of electronic devices is said to emerge and the Fraunhofer Institute believes this is vital for the design of more environmentally compatible products.