The very exciting Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas was full of vendors displaying all sorts of new products from computers, televisions, automobiles, and other consumer electronics made from a variety of new materials.
And, 3D printing was an ever bigger highlight than ever as this technology grows and is used in so many more manufacturing applications replacing other processes and materials. These developments are changing both the way we think about products and the convergence between different industries but how these technologies will change the way products will be used, owned, repaired and recycled.
A few observations. Artificial intelligence is already in these and other products today. And, yes, it is going to change the way you live, work, shop, and interact with people and machines. For example, the intersection between personal computing and communications. Devices now can not only respond to your verbal commands but can learn and anticipate your behaviors. This includes everything from waking you up in the morning, preparing you for your day by providing weather and traffic information and schedule and reschedule your day based on this and other information being inputted into it through the Cloud on a millisecond basis. Along the way, these devices can pre-order your coffee just the way you like it from Starbucks, or depending on your schedule, activate your own home coffeemaker, start and warm up or cool off your car, plot the best way to your next appointment, notify that next appointment of your arrival, order flowers for your significant other (because you forgot it was your anniversary), monitor and warn you about your kids viewing and buying habits, turn on/off the lights at the house, warm up or cool off your house on your way back home, and more.
Cars will not only be smarter and more efficient but they will become autonomous ride-sharing vehicles. This will enable cars to constantly be operating without drivers picking up and dropping people off at their destinations using the most up-to-date traffic information. If you decide you want a private ride to work, these new vehicles will be able to reserve your parking space in advance as you pick up your pre-ordered coffee and automatically notify your appointments that you will be two minutes late. On the other hand, you can simply order up a car to pick you up wherever you happen to be. You can decide whether or not you want to pick up others who are also requesting a ride. While this is already happening with some ride-sharing companies, this will become more automated and learn the behaviors of you and your fellow neighbors to provide more efficient services by directing the routes of cars in advance to respond to increasing demand for these services. And, these cars will be loaded with electronic equipment and devices and made from materials that were 3D printed and in many cases, replacing materials such as steel, aluminum and even current-day plastics.
Smart Homes are already becoming integrated into the marketplace with the ability to control or have controlled all sorts of functions from lights, temperature, locking/unlocking doors, monitoring your house, even operating consumer products such as crockpots, blenders, coffeemakers, stereos, etc. from anywhere in the world. This will make your house more energy efficient, safe, convenient, and more comfortable. And, the interaction and communication between these devices will enable the devices such as your refrigerator to monitor, inventory, and order various groceries based on your desired menu and the expiration date of items left in the refrigerator. For instance, you can read an article about a chicken dish and have your refrigerator determine if you have all the necessary ingredients and if not, go ahead and order them and have them delivered to your house.
So, how does this Jetson’s life impact recycling?
All these new consumer products and cars will be made from new materials that may not have an end use market, at least for a while. And, until that happens, all that material may end up in landfills. Second, all these new products will be loaded with electronics such as circuit boards, photonic sensors, etc. that not only have value for repair or recycling but we certainly do not want cluttering up our landfills. So, the challenge for recyclers is to understand how to reuse or recycle these products and materials. Additionally, it is the responsibility of the manufacturers to design these products and use these new materials with the understanding that they will eventually be either repaired and/or recycled. This will require a significant undertaking to make the manufacturers aware of the difficulties of recycling these products and working together to make these products easier to repair and reuse, eliminate hazardous materials, and explore markets for these materials at the end of their useful lives. Furthermore, as an industry, we must consider that these new materials may replace a lot of the materials we currently use such as steel, aluminum, glass, and plastics. This will change the way products are recycled including the types of equipment needed. These sorts of changes have happened before, but the rapid pace of this transformation will be quicker and more widespread. With these sorts of ‘paradigm shifts,’ there will be many fantastic opportunities for recyclers.