Taking Action To Reduce E-Waste

By Steven B. Rieker, Caterpillar Inc. | September 28, 2010

Many heavy equipment owners are using machine control and guidance systems on track-type tractors, excavators, motor graders, and other products. This technology automates aspects of the earthmoving process so work crews — even relatively inexperienced ones — can complete jobs faster, more accurately and at a lower cost. Equipment owners appreciate the way these systems improve jobsite efficiency and profitability, but there can be disposal challenges as the technology ages. Like cell phones, laptops and other electronic devices, machine control and guidance systems can represent a source of e-waste.

What Is E-Waste — And Why Is It Important?

E-waste may be defined in several ways, but in very broad terms it refers to discarded electrical and electronic components. Why be concerned about e-waste?

It is a rapidly growing segment of the total waste stream. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, electronic waste is growing at three times the rate of other municipal waste.

It can be hazardous. Lead, mercury, flame retardants, and other toxic materials are often found in electronic equipment. Releasing these materials into the air, soil and water through incinerator ash or landfill leaching can pose a threat to human health and the environment.

It can contain valuable materials. Many electronic devices are made from gold, copper and other precious metals, as well as steel, plastic and glass. Recovering and reusing these materials creates economic value, conserves natural resources, and prevents the pollution that would be generated from the extraction and processing of new minerals and metals.

What Can Be Done To Reduce E-Waste?

Without a doubt, customers will continue to demand more electronic components and systems. More manufacturers are committed to meeting that demand in a manner that sustains the environment. Here are some of the things being done to reduce the volume of electronic waste associated with our machine control and guidance systems.

  • Expanding repair capabilities. To encourage customers to reuse existing systems, repair capabilities have been expanded for some manufacturers. For example, a Caterpillar Machine Control & Guidance Repair Center is staffed with factory-trained technicians who can fix displays, GPS and laser receivers, antennas, radios, coil cables, sonic tracers, blast hole drill system components, and more.
  • Offering more remanufactured components. Another option is remanufactured components and systems. The remanufactured line is growing and now includes displays and receivers for selected machine control and guidance systems. These components are remanufactured to exacting specifications. All critical engineering updates are made, so buyers end up with same-as-new quality, performance and durability at a fraction of the price of new components. A same-as-new warranty is also offered.
  • Developing greener systems. As engineers develop the next generation of machine control and guidance systems, green design remains a high priority. Systems are continuously being improved to limit the use of hazardous materials and extend component life. Furthermore, products are being designed that can be upgraded or remanufactured easily.

The ultimate goal is zero e-waste generated by electronic service parts around the world. These actions — along with other steps — will help make that vision a reality.

What Is Your Role?

As a buyer of both consumer products and capital goods, you can participate in the reduction of electronic waste. Here are a few ideas: Repair electronic devices, including machine control and guidance products, whenever possible; consider remanufactured components and systems when feasible; and shop conscientiously for new technology. Buy systems that are designed for long life, contain less toxic content and more recycled materials, use minimal packaging, can be disassembled and upgraded easily, and offer leasing or take-back options.

Next Step

There are no simple solutions to the world's e-waste problem, but we can take action — as individuals and organizations — to help reduce the electric waste our society produces.