The Cycles of Waste
Typically when we think of cycling waste, we think of recycling. Yet we have three options for reusing materials: recycling, down-cycling and up-cycling. If we are serious about reducing something like e-waste, then it is helpful to think about these options.
Up-cycling is probably the most obscure of the three. Up-cycling involves adding value to raw components. Using an old circuit board in a work of art provides one way to add value to the old circuit board. Up-cycling also extends the probably shelf-life of the old material. If the circuit board lives on for 10-20 years as a work of art, then it has been significantly up-cycled. But the questions remain: how much electronic waste can art absorb? what other options can add value to old electronic components?
Down-cycling is arguably the most common of the three. Oftentimes, things cannot be totally reabsorbed into the original market so they are placed within a lower cost material. An example of down-cycling is to shred plastic bottles to create plastic lawn furniture that cannot then be recycled. Yet down-cycling differs from material recovery in that down-cycling incorporates all of the components.
Recycling is keeping the material in the market with similar time and value life. Refurbishment of electronic components is one way recycling works relative to the e-waste problem. It is not always possible to keep all material in a recycled loop as material fatigue is a real problem. Sometimes things have just outlived their usefulness in their current configuration.
The real question about our electronic junk seems to involve finding places to put it that keep the materials in a useful space.