What’s in a Wearable?

October 8, 2015

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So, what’s with wearables? The Apple watch is the most popular wearable on the market lately, but the plethora of fitness watches and health care wearables is gaining attention, too. In this post, we’ll take a look at the benefits and dangers of wearables as well as what their growing popularity means for urban mining and electronic waste recycling.

First, what is a wearable?

Beyond the smartwatch category, wearables also include glasses, earrings, rings and other jewelry, clothing, contact lenses and more. Generally speaking, wearables consist of any technological device designed to be worn and usually containing some communication capability.

So far, the wearables market is getting all kinds of kudos from experts and insiders who see it as the next big thing in technology to take the world by storm. From an urban mining perspective, it means we could see e-waste numbers increase as newer and newer updates hit the market and older versions of wearables phase out as well as yet another device capable of yielding valuable materials post-recycling. Business Insider is already predicting phenomenal growth for the wearables market to the tune of 148 million units shipped annually by 2019. This year, smartwatches are set to account for 59 percent of wearables shipped - with that number jumping to 70 percent by 2019.

That said, it makes sense to investigate just what materials make Apple watches - and all wearables, for that matter - tick, and to do so from an e-waste perspective. Seeing that production numbers for such devices are set to skyrocket, it might prove helpful to consider the key ingredients that comprise this latest form of high tech destined to wind up in the waste stream.

Apple Watch/Wearable Components in Demand

A number of companies - Google, Pebble, Withings and Samsung, to name a few - have produced wearables with relatively slow runs in the mainstream market. The Apple Watch, on the other hand, is set to change the way that wearables work the mainstream consumer demand.

That means, one way or another, wearables will find their way in large numbers into the waste bins of the world, and if those bins aren’t marked “recycle,” we may have big problems on our hands. That’s because wearables, like many other home electronics, contain a number of hazardous components - some of which are extremely dangerous to human health.

In fact, safety is a primary concern for future wearables. Producers must comply with state and federal certification requirements to ensure wearables are safe for consumers while they are in use, but what about the end-of-life management of wearables?

The discussion about this side of the wearables story is relatively nil. Although the U.S. seems to recognize that managing the end-of-life scenarios for electronics is of crucial importance, its requirements for safety tend to focus on the potential hazards from use rather than end of use.

The European Union, on the other hand, does in fact address end-of-life management for wearables specifically with laws and regulations in its WEEE Directive. However, analysts warn consumers and manufacturers to brace themselves for borderline cases that turn on the Directive’s concept of an item’s “primary purpose” in relation to the regulations.

In the absence of clear and specific federal regulations, wearables manufacturing companies are largely left to themselves to manage the potentially hazardous components that could cause problems for the environment post-use. Apple has disclosed its long list of restricted chemicals in wearables in a white paper that also states the types of testing done on each component to ensure safety. The list is comprised of restricted chemicals subject to Apple testing that will be in prolonged skin contact.

Chemical and Metal Hazards in Wearables

Apple’s list of the restricted chemicals in its wearables is not short. The list contains nearly 11 pages worth of flame retardants, precious metals, acids and other icky traits that seems quite risky just by reading through them. Although the list is specific to Apple, it’s a good indication of the components of wearables across the market.

Many of the components listed are known environmental polluters. Of particular interest are the precious metals such as arsenic, cadmium, lead and mercury, each with its own set of dire environmental outcomes attached. Mercury, for instance, can easily seep into soil if left overtime in landfills causing soil and groundwater pollution, or it can become airborne and cause the same type of damage in the atmosphere.

Cadmium, a known carcinogen, is already being used less and less in home electronics due to its toxicity, and lead has become a powerful byword both for its danger to the natural environment when improperly disposed and its danger to the human immune, endocrine and cardiovascular systems.

Beyond this, PCBs are on the list. These are synthetic organic chemicals, which were banned in the U.S. in 1979 for their potential for harm to the environment and human systems. Restricted use, however, still continues today under very limited circumstances, and much of the PCB content in the environment and air that still exists does so because the material persisted in soil and air even after the ban.

Taking the environmental factors into account when contemplating the massive amount of wearables currently in waiting to flood the market and considering that each of these units will eventually one day either be properly or improperly disposed, leaves one feeling that wearables may not be all they’re cracked up to be. Unless, manufacturers, distributors and governments begin regulating the disposal of these devices, they could just turn out to be yet another dangerous addition to the e-waste crisis.

The Challenge of Recycling Wearables

So how should we tackle the issue of recycling wearables? The answer to that question may not be so focused on “what” as much as on “how.” Samsung and Google each have their own recycling initiatives for consumer electronics. Retailers like Staples and Best Buy also have similar initiatives in place.

Each of these companies have teamed up with certified electronics recycling companies to handle the recycling services for the devices they help collect through savvy marketing and conveniently located collection points. These services are crucial to addressing the ever-climbing rates of electronic waste disposal in America and abroad.

And let’s not forget the promise of urban mining for wearables. Like other home electronics, wearables have the potential to yield significant benefits with safe and well-managed extraction of precious metals and other recoverables. These can then be fed back into manufacturing streams for cost-savings and reduced dependence on natural resources.

One this is for certain concerning wearables - whatever is done to increase awareness (and follow-through) on recycling and recovery with these devices, it must be done soon. If not, they’re gradually ramping up to become yet another link in the e-waste crisis chain.