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Fraunhofer Institute for Reliability and Microintegration

Tablets: Just how easily can they be recycled or repaired?

A newly published Fraunhofer IZM research report provides a comprehensive overview of a recently completed in-house, independent evaluation of the possibilities for recycling and repairing tablet computers.  The study’s scientists disassembled and assessed 21 tablets, including the Apple iPad mini, the Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 and the Asus Google Nexus 7, in the institute’s assembly and thermal analysis laboratories.
 
The evaluation showed that recycling and repair options varied significantly between the different tablets. Moreover, higher quality and robustness increased the difficulty of disassembly and, as such, related repair and recycling processes.
 
In some instances, the aims of optimizing recycling and simplifying repair processes were irreconcilable. For example, consider the advantages and disadvantages posed by the three main options for fastening the tablet’s individual parts: screws, plastic clips and gluing. For repairs, component replacement is best served by screw-based fastening. However, in recycling, easily snapped plastic clips speed up material sorting. Finally, although gluing complicates repairs and hampers efficient material sorting, it is the best means of achieving the slimmest possible build space.
 
Recycling a tablet’s valuable, non-renewable materials, including precious metals, aluminium and plastics, is a high priority. However, the study found that the tablets included composite materials, which would complicate material sorting to the point of diminishing the quantity of materials finding their way into the recycling system.
 
Secondly, removing a tablet’s battery quickly is a key factor in recycling. Here too, most of the 21 tablets failed the grade.  Of the tablets tested, just one business tablet allowed for removal and replacement of the battery (as is standard in laptops), despite the fact that replacement shortly before end-of-lifetime may also interest retail consumers.

A separate, follow-up project for the German Federal Environment ministry has already been initiated. Here, Fraunhofer IZM scientists are addressing the following questions in the institute’s battery testing laboraties: 1) How many charging cycles can a typical tablet battery undergo? 2) Does this number differ between the various tablet models? 3) Is replacing the battery before end-of-lifetime even likely to be necessary?
 
Most of the evaluated tablet designs were not geared toward consumer-side repairs, with unintentional, further damage to the device during disassembly extremely likely. Moreover, although a few manufacturers had provided detailed service manuals online, identifying the best means of opening the individual tablets was often difficult, posing an additional risk of further damage to parts during the repair process.
 
Options for replacing defective parts also varied greatly between the tablets. For example, in some devices, the touchscreen was glued to the LCD panel, which meant that repairing damage to the front glass would require replacing the entire LCD unit as well.
 
The Green Electronics Council, which provided most of the devices investigated in the study, is taking a first step towards addressing these issues by including tablets in EPEAT, its environmental rating, evaluation and labeling system for computers and other electronics. Fraunhofer IZM’s research report will provide a framework for deciding the criteria used to assess tablet computers’ repair and recycling suitability.
 
The study was carried out by the institute’s Department of Environmental & Reliability Engineering, which has many years of experience in the research of electronic product reliability, ecodesign and environmental friendliness. It has provided extensive consulting on technical issues to the European Commission and is an established research and development partner for manufacturers seeking to improve their products’ environmental friendliness.

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