Students recycle old electronics in E-Waste Competition

What are you gonna do with all that junk?

Fergie is not the only one to have asked this question. Participants in the Sustainable E-Waste Design Competition, sponsored by the School of Art and Design, are trying to find the answers.

In February, more than five tons of old electronics were dropped off by the public at Lincoln Hall, said Willie Cade, CEO of PC Rebuilders and Recyclers in Chicago and liaison for the E-Waste competition at the University.

Students in an independent study class about electronic waste held an event to collect extra electronics from students and the community for the competition.

“Most of the electronics collected were computers, monitors, printers and scanners,” said Marissa Dolin, a graduate student and teaching assistant for one of the independent classes.

The old electronics were distributed among 24 teams of students. Each group consists of three to five people who must use the materials to create an appealing product from the waste.

Students will enter either the “designer/artist” category that focuses on the aesthetic elements and physical interaction with their product or the “geek/technical” category that focuses on electrical support, according to the event’s Web site.

One group’s idea includes turning the outside of a computer case and to make furniture. Another team is trying to take magnets from hard drives to create a generator, Dolin said.

One idea Cade particularly likes is a generator attached to a bicycle that can charge batteries while the rider pedals along, which is appealing for busy students.

“It would also have great use in third-world countries where the electrical grid may be unreliable,” Cade said.

Sponsors and judges for the event include representatives from Wal-Mart, Dell and Motorola, said William Bullock, professor of art and design. $15,000 in scholarships is available for winning teams, he added.

“I think that one of the biggest challenges for students is that they are working with outdated pieces of equipment,” Dolin said. “From a student designer perspective it is difficult to find pieces that work and software that supports them.”

The incompatibility of old technology is also part of the waste problem.

“Technology is not designed to be re-used. Sometimes it costs more to repair it than to buy new things,” Bullock said. “There’s a lot of value in them. It’s just hard to get the value out.”

Tim Lindsey, director of the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center, wrote in a concept document called “Strategies for Improving the Sustainability of E-Waste Management Systems” that electronic waste contains toxic substances such as lead, mercury, cadmium and lithium, but can also contain precious metals such as gold and silver.

“They were shipped overseas, and children were taking these components apart to get the copper and being exposed to the toxins,” said Eric Benson, assistant professor of graphics design. Cade remains skeptical about the exact effect of electronic waste and wants to do more research to better address the conflict.

“It’s a big debate on what the actual problems are,” Cade said. “One of the things that I think is so important is that we get the University involved in researching exactly the problems and bringing academic rigor to that question.”

Cade said there is a proposed bill on the Illinois House floor that, if passed, will fund $85 million of University research on electronic waste over the next three years.

Although the competition is named E-Waste, Cade said the terms E-Scrap and E-Opportunity are more appropriate. His refurbishing company has placed more than 40,000 refurbished computers at schools and homes for at-risk children and diverted from landfills thousands of tons of electronics.

The competition tries to solve the problem of electronic disposals with new creative ideas.

“It is not a final solution on what to do with old computers, maybe a possible really good smaller solution,” said Amy Cade, senior in FAA and Willie Cade’s daughter.

Amy shares her father’s interest in actively doing something about electronic waste. Amy introduced her father to Bullock, which is how the E-Waste project got started.

Howard Guenther, associate vice chancellor for research, said this project will accomplish two things.

“(It will) bring attention to the problem … and propose innovative ways of addressing some of these problems,” he said.

Benson said he is glad this class can show others what they can do with electronic waste. The final projects will be displayed and judged on April 16 in front of Lincoln Hall at 11 a.m. The public is invited to attend.

“Hopefully the class serves as a catalyst for new solutions,” Benson said.