The Environmental Cost of Electronic Fabrics

cuttlefish/CC BY 1.0

So remember how we just asked about the safety of wearing nanoparticle-coated cotton fibers in the future as wearable electronics become a reality? Well safety of the wearer is one concern -- but safety of the planet is another. The New York Times Green Blog brings up a great element of the "thinking only about if we can, not if we should" problem when it comes to electronics.

Dylan Walsh writes, "The growing practice of weaving electronics into the fiber of clothing could add to the already monumental challenge of e-waste disposal. Some fifty million tons of electronic waste already accumulate annually in “soaring mountains” of refuse, the United Nations says. As a Science Times article on wired textiles recently noted, electronic or “smart” textiles have electronics in the very weave of their fabric, enabling clothing to respond in various ways to the environment and to function as electronic devices, like mobile phones or heart-rate monitors."

So what is the hidden cost of these embedded electronics in fabrics? It is a question we bring up often as new design concepts surface, from super-thin e-newspapers to digital price tags in supermarkets. It's the "yeahbut" question everyone has to ask when it comes to aligning the planet's needs with our techy wants.

As Walsh points out, e-textiles are promising. We noted earlier that there are a lot of possible uses, including potentially gathering a charge for electronics just as you walk down the street, making your movement the renewable energy source for devices. However, at what environmental cost? This is a part of the technology that few have explored.

Walsh points us to a study published in the Journal of Industrial Ecology that has completed a first analysis of what the e-textile industry could mean if it happens on a commercial scale.

"Interviewing designers, engineers and policy makers about e-textile disposal, Mr. Köhler found that those involved in the field readily agreed to the importance of the question but were not looking for answers themselves...A mass consumer market for e-textiles without an integrated understanding of safe disposal methods raises serious questions about the depletion of resources and effects on human human health, Mr. Köhler suggests, especially for vulnerable populations in developing countries where such clothing is sent or dumped."

This is a question that goes well beyond e-textiles and into the basic fabric of design, if you will. We have to -- not should, not might, but have to -- design with end of life in mind. Cradle-to-cradle design takes this into account, but unfortunately, most electronics manufacturers, and dare I say all major consumer electronics manufacturers, don't utilize the cradle-to-cradle method of design when working on new products, or improving the old. Manufacturers are considering how to pump out new useful technologies that people want, and end-of-life care will just follow at some other time.

Unfortunately, we are seeing all too clearly the enormous flaws in putting off end-of-life design until too late. E-waste dumps, poor or non-existent regulations for e-waste exports, the leaching of toxic chemicals in landfills from electronics that were thrown "away" -- these are coming back to haunt us on a scale we haven't even been able to really assess because of the massive numbers.

So what about new technologies like e-textiles? If we can't properly recycle cell phones, are we going to properly recycle e-textiles? Can they be recycled? How? With existing processes, or will new processes have to be devised?

And why aren't we considering these things in alignment with whether or not we can make it work?

Walsh points out, "Currently, appropriate recycling technology does not exist. When e-textiles are sent to electronics recyclers, the fabrics jam shredders; when they are sent to fabric recyclers, the interwoven electronics contaminate fiber reprocessing."

This is a problem that must be solved before e-textiles can even be considered for commercial scale.

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Tags: Concepts & Prototypes | Electronics | E-Waste | Gadgets | Recycling

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