Published: 05 April 2017

Getting CLEVER about throwaway devices

The average person in the UK has a new mobile phone every two years, leading to vast amounts of electronic waste going into landfill. An outreach project by environmental researchers at Surrey has targeted teenagers to find ways of tackling this global challenge.

The CLEVER (Closed Loop Emotionally Valuable E-waste Recovery) project investigated how personal electronic devices such as mobile phones and tablets could be designed differently so that consumers would become attached to them and, as a result, want to keep the devices for longer. This included developing new materials which ‘age gracefully’ in the same way that leather improves with age.

CLEVER, funded by EPSRC (Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council), was a collaboration between Surrey’s Centre for the Environment and Sustainability (CES) and Bath, Oxford, Newcastle and Loughborough Universities, focused on the theme of resource efficiency. As part of a wider network on resource efficiency, EPSRC also funded CORE (Creative Outreach for Resource Efficiency), with the Universities of Surrey, Loughborough, East Anglia, Edinburgh, Warwick, Cranfield and Manchester, which was aimed at developing outreach for three projects (CLEVER, CL4W and  EXHUME).

In the CLEVER project, CES’s Dr Jacquetta Lee and Dr James Suckling worked with Leicestershire Education Business Company to develop a series of workshops which have been delivered to 300 secondary school pupils. During the workshops, students explored why people keep electronic devices after they have been replaced by new ones, the hidden value of the components that make up a mobile phone, and the environmental impact of mining, manufacturing and transporting these valuable resources.

A toolkit based on the workshop content has also been distributed to schools across Leicestershire.

Dr Lee commented: “The challenge of making personal electronics more sustainable is not something you can solve with a technical solution. It requires a multidisciplinary approach – technical, economic, social – and needs to tackle consumer attitudes as well as looking at the technology itself.”

Dr Suckling added: “Old mobiles and other devices often end up in developing countries where recycling processes are not necessarily optimal, which has a negative impact on society and the environment. What we want to do is move away from a culture of having to possess everything to wanting to share resources. Connectivity is the important thing rather than possessing the latest gadget.”

The research team is now working on new projects including PLEIADES, which is investigating how to reduce uncertainty in early design decisions for aerospace, and Stepping Up, which is focused on the conditions that support and encourage low impact innovations at the water/energy/food nexus.

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