High rates of technological innovation and consumer adoption in the consumer electronics sector has led to increasing concerns about the potential implications on resource consumption and waste generation. Despite growing public and policy attention on recycling as a strategy to curb resource demand and waste management impacts, less than 50 percent of end-of-life electronics are recovered for recycling in the U.S. A critical barrier to sustainable management of electronics is the lack of data and tools to proactively estimate consumption and waste flows, to create solutions that respond to the dynamic nature of this product sector. For sustainable solutions to keep pace with the rapid rate of innovation, they must be informed by comprehensive and proactive research, that not only quantifies material flows in electronics but also investigates associated economic, environmental and social implications.
This dissertation aims to fill this knowledge gap through three interconnected lines of inquiry. First, a baseline material footprint analysis is conducted to retroactively estimate the material consumption and waste generation associated with household electronic product consumption in the U.S. from 1990 until present. Results from this analysis contradict the long-standing assumption that e-waste is a rapidly growing waste stream in the U.S. In fact, the net material footprint of electronics has begun to decline, mainly due to consumers phasing out large Cathode Ray Tube TVs in favor of lighter flat panel technologies. While the analysis shows decline in potential e-waste toxicity from traditional hazards like lead and mercury, it also raises new issues of concern for e-waste management. Notably, results show high resource potential in the emerging e-waste stream with new opportunities to recover scarce metals not currently recycled.
Second, a predictive material flow model based on historic product adoption behavior was developed, to enable future forecasts of resource and waste flows so that stakeholders can create proactive – rather than reactive – solutions. Adoption forecasts for emerging technologies show increasingly fast windows of product innovation and uptake. In other words, new electronics are likely to have rapid uptake in the market but may be quickly replaced by subsequent product innovations. The forecasts also suggest that waste flows for mature products like CRTs, desktops, monitors and flat panel TVs will continue to be a major issue for the short term, with declining contribution to the U.S. e-waste stream in the future. Material flow estimations predict increasing prevalence of critical materials in e-waste underscoring a need to shift e-waste management mechanisms from ‘mass’ to ‘materials’, or in other words, from an emphasis on ‘waste diversion’ to a new focus on ‘resource retention’.
Finally, a comprehensive set of sustainability metrics were created and applied to assess the economic, environmental and social impacts for the wide spectrum of materials used in electronics. Material metrics help identify key material hotspots and prioritize new solutions for reducing resource demand and waste management challenges. This dissertation contributes novel data and modeling tools that can aid stakeholders across the electronics industry in making informed decisions in product design, policy planning and material recovery in electronics.
Library of Congress Subject Headings
Household electronics industry--Environmental aspects--United States; Household electronics industry--Government policy--United States; Electronic waste--Management
Department, Program, or Center
Althaf, Shahana, "Sustainability Implications of Consumer Electronics Adoption in the United States" (2019). Thesis. Rochester Institute of Technology. Accessed from
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