The problems of e-waste

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Last week I choose a design strategy and made a plan for the rest of the project. But it has been important for me to ensure that I don’t come up with a good solution to the wrong problem. The last days I have therefore been taken a step back and looked more into what the exact sustainability problems are with the current design of electronic products, and wireless speakers in particular. This search included taking a newly bought product apart, finding a container full of old e-waste, talking to lots of users and looking deep into the complicated streams of electronic waste.

To evaluate the environmental impact of a product, the whole life-cycle has to be considered and a holistic view is necessary to take many different impacts into account. How much energy is used during manufacturing? How is it transported? How much energy does it use? What substances can be harmful to the environment? And last but not least, how is it disposed at the end-of-life. The idea behind the Products That Last approach is to extend the product use and the material use. For now I will not conduct a full life-cycle assessment. I will instead focus on the end of life and I will do that by analyzing three levels:

1. Component level (What is the impact of the materials and components?)
2. Product level (Why do people dispose the product?)
3. Systems level (How are wireless speakers disposed?)

As previously mentioned wireless speakers are quite simple products. To understand how the speakers are build up, I have looked at some of the many teardown videos, you can find on Youtube and sites like, where curious nerds carefully take apart their new gadgets in order to share the inside with the rest of the world (or at least with the people who find such videos entertaining). For me it was not enough to look at videos so I bought a cheap speaker and took it apart:

Teardown collage

There are four main parts of wireless speakers and they have different implications for the environment; The speaker unit(s), the casing, the battery and the integrated printed circuit board (PCB). What make these speakers different from former (passive) speakers is the addition of the battery and the circuit board.

The problems with the printed circuit board is the use of toxic brominated flame retardants (BFRs) and the lead used for soldering and beryllium used in copper alloy connectors. Besides that a circuit board contains precious rare earth metals that only to a limited degree get recollected.

The casing brominated flame retardants (BFRs) can be used and the casing can be made of different materials that are not easy to take apart. Like in many other small electronics devices li-ion batteries are used in wireless speakers. Li-Ion batteries are not as bad as other kind of batteries and are classified as non-hazardous waste, but they contain valuable iron, copper, nickel and cobalt and as mining currently remains cheaper than recycling, most batteries end up being incinerated.

Why do people dispose their electronic products and transform smart gadgets into waste? This question have been the hardest for me to answer so far. The reasons are many and complex and it is very hard to find any hard numbers to answer the question specifically for wireless speakers. The product category is new, which means that most products are still in use, and it also means that it is impossible to identify the product in the statistics, which I will come back to later.

If we look at small consumer electronics in general the Products That Last book come up with many insightful considerations with regards to the question. Both function and form are at stake. Here are a couple of different scenarios:

1. It doesn’t work.
Electronic repair websites such as has trouble shooting pages, where errors are listed, but it is difficult to get an overview of which errors are the most common. I iFixit also has a so called “repairability score” for the products that they tear apart and for most of the speakers available the score is quite good, which means that if something breaks it is possible to repair. Yet, it is important to remember that even though it is technically possible, relatively few people have the courage or skills to do it. And it is simple not feasible if the speaker only cost €50 (or €10 as was the case with the speaker above). The lithium-ion battery in the speaker has a limited lifespan (typical 500-1000 cycles) and after some years the performance of the product will therefore decrease and at one point not be able to function in way that satisfy the user.

2. It’s outdated
Secondly perfectly well functioning products can be disposed simple because there is something new and better. As processing power grows exponentially and prices continues to drop, many electronic products are almost obsolete before they even hit the shelves.  It could argued that not all technologies need to be faster and that more mature technologies, such as speakers, therefore are more resistant to technological development. This is true, as the core technology might not change, but increased computing power, enables quality improvement through e.g. noise canceling software. And as technology evolves prices also go down, which can explain why it is possible to now buy a bluetooth speaker for €10 as the one shown above.

3. It doesn’t solve a need
Discounts and offers often encourage us to buy things that we don’t need. After some time in the drawer along with unwanted presents we simple forget that we have it.

4. The experience is bad
It can also be that there is an actual need, but that the user experience is just not satisfactory. This is related to the price. Below can be seen a difference between a €10 and a €15 speaker. It is easy to hear the difference in quality.


So how a speakers being disposed? I visited the electronic waste collection point on TU Delft’s campus, to get an idea of what kinds of products get disposed and what state they are in. The e-waste from a university campus is different from waste from households, and therefore the e-waste that I saw mostly consisted of old computers and monitors. But it was still interesting to get a first hand impression and to talk to the e-waste caretaker.
e-waste tu delft_edited_edited

It is difficult to say exactly where wireless speakers end their lifes, because the product category is new. This both means that few wireless speakers have been disposed and that the product category does not exist in the available data. According to the european WEEE directive wireless speakers would fall in the category of Small electronics equipment, which is a rather broad category. Another way to classify electronics products is with so called UNU-keys, with 54 different groups, where each category share average weights, material composition and end of life characteristics (UN University, 2015). But also here it is difficult to find wireless speakers. Are they classified together with normal speakers? Or in the group “music instruments, radio and hifi”? Or is it maybe small consumer electronics? There is simple no category that cover speaker devices with internal batteries. A report from the UN University (2015) reveals that in the Netherlands only 32% of e-waste is collected and recycled in official recycling centers. The report also reveals that the majority of small electronic devices end up in the waste bin instead of the recycling center. In the Netherlands each person produce on average 23.7 kilos of e waste. Small Electronic Equipment accounts for 6.4 kilos and in this category 1.6 kilo ends up in the waste bin each year. So it is reasonable to assume that also a lot of the speakers sold now will end up in the bin.

e-waste graphs


All in all it can be concluded that the current model here in the Netherlands are far from circular. And for the products that are recycled, the materials are really being downgraded. So there is a true need for more circular product designs to change this.

Sources: United Nations University (2015): E-waste statistics, guidelines on classification, reporting and indicators, Institute for the advanced study of sustainability. 

Product analysis – the Ghettoblasters of today

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The revival of the portable speaker

One of the most iconic products of the 80’s is the Boombox. The suitcase sized boxes took music out of the home and into the street, where they delivered the soundtrack to a whole new street culture with hiphop, breakdance and lots of attitude. The portable music system quickly became an urban phenomena and got known as Ghettoblasters. The more bottoms and flashing lights the better.

In the 90’s sales declined, due to changes in consumer taste and competition from more portable audio systems such as the Walkman and Diskman. In recent years we have seen a revival in portable speaker systems. This time the speakers are much more minimal looking than the systems of the past. The new systems are a result of new music consumption pattern: streaming services combined with smartphones allow all music to be accessible anywhere.

The new kinds of speaker that are gaining increasing popularity connects to smartphones, computers and tablets via wireless technology, mostly bluetooth. The offered products on the market in the category have exploded in recent years and today wireless speakers comes in almost any imaginable material and varies in price from 10€-700€.
The components of a wireless speaker
Even though the different products on the market look very distinct, most of them are similar if we look under the skin. Compared to the Ghettoblasters of the past, wireless speakers are relatively simple products as the music playing functionality is done externally.

So lets have at the typical components:
Loudspeakers * 2
Li-ion battery pack
AC adaptor
Battery charger
Audio decoder
Amplifier Bluetooth module
Inner housing
Enclosure (NFC Module)

According to electronics360 the total cost of materials (BOM) is around 25€ for a speaker costing 200€. The relative simple design means that it is possible to make your own speaker. Such one can be seen below:

Home made speaker found in
Home made speaker found in

One for everyone
If you are not up for making a speaker yourself, then it is good that the wireless speaker market shows great variety and many hundreds different designs exist. Within the last 3 years have published 80 reviews of wireless speakers and currently the market is growing 25% annually and is estimated to have a market size of $25bn in 2020. The collage below shows a bit of the variety. Almost any imaginable form and material is available: steel, aluminimum, wood, a variety of plastic, leather, plywood, even porcelain speakers are on the market.

Variety of speakers

I have identified four main segments on the market:

The designer object
The speakers we find in this segment are portable, but often they don’t move. The speakers are sleek on the outside, but powerfull under the skin. They are as much a designer object as a sound device. Typical materials are aluminium, wood and textiles. Often they are marketed towards females, who find old hifi systems unattractive and intrusive, and who like the simplicity of a wireless speaker. In this category we find mostly premium products and the price range goes from 150-700€.

The socializer
This group of users are often on the move and they want to take their music with them. So they want a compact, fun and reliable speaker, so they can always share the new tunes with their friends and start a party. The wireless speaker is a secondary speaker. Price ranges from 50-200€

The compact companion
Why have two when one is enough? This type is characterized by only having one speaker and portability and price is valued over price. It is the perfect travel companion for a backpacking trip or as the . These speakers can be found as cheap as 10€.

The extremist
The last category is all the speakers made for more extreme use. This a mixed group and consist of speakers for use in the shower, on a bike and even in a pool.

Good sounds that last

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Welcome to a journey that goes back in time and far, far into the future. But first let us start with the present. We live in an age of electronics, where electronic gadgets become an ever more integrated part of our lifes. Each year there is a new smartphone that is faster, better, thinner. Every millimeter counts. But as our objects get smarter the same can not be said of our way of designing them. As our gadgets get thinner and more compact they also get more integrated product design under the surface which means that often repair is not an option. So when your phone battery is dead or your Macbook need more memory your product is obsolete. Buy and repeat. The result is an ever increasing problem with electronic waste.

This blog is an open investigation of how to create electronic products that last longer. The focus of the investigation is wireless speakers – a new type of electronic products that have been increasingly popular in the last couple of years. In 10 intense weeks I will find out why speakers don’t last. And try to make some that do.