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Assessment of the loss of scarce resources from household products by reverse engineering

Peter Skov Hansen and Henrik Gruttner | University of Southern Denmark, Denmark

Assessment of the loss of scarce resources from household products by reverse engineering

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Understanding environmental impacts of materials (and appropriate material selection) requires a basic understanding of the origin, the use and - as a fairly recently recognized issue - the fate of the materials end-of-life for the products. Such understanding is of paramount importance for designers and construction engineers in our modern society being increasingly aware of the scarcity and impacts of our resource consumption. Considering the increasing use of electronic devices in the households it is important to assess the amount of resources tied in the devices and their recovery in the end-of-life treatment. During now seven years, we have been using a problem-based teaching approach for design engineering students and environmental technology students. The approach allows the students to create a bill of materials by 'reverse engineering' of common household products and assess the impacts by application of the MECO-method. The MECO method focuses on the scarcity of the resources used to create the materials and the loss of resources depending on their fate end of life by application of the Person Reserve concept. Further, the method considers the energy consumed during the different life cycle stages and qualitatively assesses potentially harmful chemicals and other aspects. Over the years approximately 80 products have been assessed including groups of similar products like vacuum cleaners, robotic vacuum cleaners, coffee machines and electric handheld screwing machines. From a teaching point of view, the reverse engineering approach creates a number of benefits. Among the benefits, motivation should be emphasized, related to the joy of investigating some real stuff. This motivation also encourages the students to establish an understanding of the properties of the materials found in the products. On the negative side, the frustration of the difficulties to identify the actual composition of the materials has to be mentioned. That, on the other hand, also creates incentives to learn more about the properties of the actual materials. With respect to the environmental impacts, the assessments show a number of similarities between products families; in particular the high loss of scarce resources from electronic components and a high consumption of energy during the use stage. With respect to scarcity of resources, the differences in particular relates to different amounts of electronic features. The different amount of printed circuit boards, contacts, regulators and sensors, and different levels of material complexity is significantly impacting the recycling efficiency in the shredder systems.