One of the challenges of recycling plastics from electronics is fundamental - how do you communicate what you have collected amid the mishmash of resins and additives coming in the door, from computers to TVs to cell phones?
An industry consortium run from Tufts University in Medford, Mass., thinks it has the answer with a system that for the first time categorizes the materials.
The consortium, called the Stakeholder Dialogues for Recycling Engineering Thermoplastics from Used Electronics Equipment, picked up the top environmental award from the Society of Plastics Engineers' Global Plastics Environmental Conference, held Feb. 18-19 in Detroit.
The Tufts group published its guidelines in 2003 as part of the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries standards for handling electronic scrap.
``It is basically the communication tool between buyers and sellers,'' said Patricia Dillon, manager of the project and an adjunct faculty member at the Gordon Institute at Tufts. The project included participants from electronics manufacturers, resin suppliers, industry trade groups and government officials.
The Tufts group also has been active in making recommendations to the federal government on green-purchasing guidelines for electronics. Federal agencies spend $38 billion a year on electronics.
Some of the recommendations simply codify general trends in product design, like not using pentaBDE and octaBDE as flame retardants. But Dillon said others forge new ground by recommending use of recycled content or using biobased materials.
The project also recommends not painting plastic parts, and it suggests a hierarchy for processing end-of-life plastics, rating reuse as best, followed by mechanical recycling, then chemical recycling, using plastics as an energy source in metal smelting, and finally incineration that recovers energy from the plastic.
The recommendations have been submitted to the Environmental Protection Agency, which is using them to rank the environmental friendliness of electronic products. EPA's effort will result in an Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool, similar to the agency's Energy Star program, which endorses products that cut energy use.
``In the future [government agencies] could say `We're only going to purchase it if it is EPEAT compliant,' '' Dillon said.
Other SPE GPEC award winners include:
* New Technology and Materials. DuPont Engineering Polymers and Japanese automotive supplier Denso Corp. won for a project to take glass-filled nylon radiator tanks and recycle the material back into radiator tanks.
* Emerging Technologies. Scotts Co. in Marysville, Ohio, won for developing a spray trigger for its pesticide that foams the chemical, allowing it to be visible on the weed for up to a minute. The company said that allows consumers to use less foam and reduce environmental harm from pesticides.
* Enabling Technologies. Erema North America Inc., of Ipswich, Mass., won for its VacuRema system of recycling PET bottles into food-grade applications.
* Environmental Design Award. Furniture maker Herman Miller Inc. of Zeeland, Mich., won for its Mirra chair. The chair uses 42 percent recycled content, is assembled using energy from wind power, and had a tough to disassemble steel-polymer spine replaced by nylon.
* Biobased Materials Award. Ashland Specialty Chemicals Co. in Dublin, Ohio, won for its Envirez 5000 resin, which contains 25 percent content from soy and corn. The resin is used in John Deere Inc. combines.
* Environmental Stewardship. This award had three winners: Delta Plastics of the South, in Stuttgart, Ark., for a system of collecting and recycling 25 million pounds of its agricultural irrigation tubing; Hancor Inc., in Findlay, Ohio, for its EcoFirst pipe; and Harbec Plastics Inc., in Ontario, N.Y., for its onsite power system.