Recycling IoT devices through IoT technologies

IoT technologies have ushered a transformative effect on multiple industries, and the recycling and waste management sectors are one of them where such technologies can play a role in such a dire global need.

Complete access to connected sensors, monitoring devices, and such services can facilitate businesses to collate more data from the environments in which they operate and develop new operational strategies that promote efficiency and enable businesses to create more sustainable, cost-effective practices. However, the shift to a smart recycling operation is dependent on strategic IT investments that lay the groundwork for far-reaching progress.

From a consumer usage point of view, smartphones, fitness armbands, smartwatches, and other IoT devices have become more common in the daily life of the regular consumer. As time goes on, these devices would continue to play an important role in the future.

An increase in IoT devices will also lead to more e-waste. However, the extent to which this e-waste will impact the environment will depend largely on how electronics recyclers innovate their processes and services.

How does one manage IoT device waste disposal? Can IoT technologies play a role?

The rising popularity of IoT Devices

IoT devices refer to smartwatches, smart refrigerators, smart appliances, and other smart devices not including your phone or your computer.

Together, these other smart devices and small microprocessors that upgrade new work equipment make up the ‘Internet of Things’.

So, what does this mean for the old and failed IoT devices that are getting thrown in the trash due to the latest and greatest advances in new technology?

The piling up of electronic waste

Waste created from electronic devices, also known as e-waste, has jumped in volume a few years after major advances like IoT devices. Personal computers, video gaming devices, and laptops are now standard accessories or necessities at home. These early introductions had begun the piling of devices in landfills.

In terms of usage and consumer behaviour, these early devices were however long-term devices. On the contrary, the surging demand for smart devices in the last decade is generally typically designed to last for a couple of years. With the introduction of newer advanced models, consumers are triggered to upgrade or buy newer models.

Due to this rampant buying spree and heightened consumerism, what one is witnessing is a giant stockpile of electronic waste that keeps piling up on a daily basis.

As a matter of fact, the United Nations estimates that by 2050, the e-waste build-up will cross four billion tons.

Obsolescence with purpose

Consumerism currently dictates an ‘out with the old and bring in a new’ mantra when it comes to smart devices and gadgets.

By purpose or design, most companies can be blamed for a phenomenon called planned obsolescence or obsolescence by design. This is when products are designed to fail or collapse after a designated period of time. This then pushes the consumer to make another purchase and replace the existing device.

In many cases, it is the batteries that need to be replaced. This by itself is an environmental disaster as batteries add to the landfill. There are many devices that have just one life. These smart devices are made to perform only till the battery lasts and then they need to be disposed of. Such functionality in new-age smart devices is an inconvenience to many buyers as more money would need to be spent. In addition, the damage to the environment is colossal as landfills keep filling. This leads us to the issue at hand; IoT devices that end up in landfills.

IoT devices in landfills

Most IoT devices have short life spans and getting dumped in landfills at such short turnaround times is a cause of severe worry from a climate perspective.

E-waste is not biodegradable and current facilities use techniques like open-air burning and acid baths to create space in landfills that are always operating at peak capacity. Materials are recovered in a haphazard manner and hazardous toxins are released into the environment.

Environmental Impact of Internet of Things Devices

Improperly disposed of IoT devices have negative effects on the environment around them. This includes the water, earth, plants, and animals.

  • Disposing of cells and batteries: Various devices run on disposable batteries. Inappropriately disposed batteries release toxins into the soil and make their way into farms of sources of water supply.

  • Toxic Methods to Extract Materials: When extracting materials from e-waste, there is potential damage to the environment if advanced technologies are not deployed. Using acid bath techniques for example can release toxins into the air, water, and soil. These chemicals can impact health through cancer, brain damage, etc.

  • Diminishing Resources: Furthermore, improperly discarding IoT devices leads to the loss of valuable resources that include rare earth elements, precious metals, and more. This increases the requirement for mining which negatively impacts the environment.

Recycling IoT devices is critical

Recycling IoT devices with a trusted recycling facility are the best way to ensure the safety of data and environmental protection. Certified recycling facilities have access to advanced technologies to ensure maximum extraction of metals and minerals in the most eco-friendly manner.

Recycling slows down climate change. Manufacturing devices from scratch emanate massive amounts of CO2 emissions. But when manufacturers use recyclates and secondary metals, carbon emissions are brought down considerably.

The role of IoT in e-waste management

Typical operational processes in recycling and waste management are not very effective. Organizations track consumption patterns in their service areas based on historical patterns, identify their availability to collect materials, and schedule their operations accordingly. This general practice follows across the industry, from municipal waste management teams to specialized companies that focus on commercial and industrial markets. Smart recycling and waste management could turn this model on its head, giving organizations real-time visibility into the status of collection receptacles so they can avoid unnecessary pickups and optimize operations. IoT solutions are making this possible.

As per a Waste360 report, IoT technologies are already in action in the form of waste and recycling containers that use radio-frequency identification technologies to allow collection teams to track assets in the field. Sensors that are fitted relay live data on how full containers are while vehicles connected to the internet transmit telematics data to concerned teams.

Such technologies when rapidly adopted, add a critical layer of intelligence to operations, giving organizations real-time data updates that allow them to become more responsive to the needs of their customers and less reliant on projections and similar estimates.

Operational benefits are not the only advantage of IoT-enabled recycling and waste management solutions. The functionality of embedding connected technologies into receptacles is enabling the use of AI/ML and cameras to circumvent operational issues. A Smithsonian report reveals that future recycling bins can utilize computer vision to identify material classes within the containers and automatically sort it to curtail human error. This makes processing simpler for recycling centers to process e-waste.

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