Creating New Uses for Recycled Laptops

William Bullock, Cliff Shin
University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign


William Bullock  / Cliff Shin
Professor, University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign
Assistant Professor, University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign

Electronics are central to a global economy that has reduced poverty and improved the quality of life for many world-wide. The increased demand for electronic devices has created a growing surplus of electronic waste and disposal is a growing problem nationally and internationally. A particular problem is laptops used by government agencies and various data sensitive industries typically have their hard drives removed and destroyed/erased before being reclaimed for recycling out of concern for proprietary data of a secretive, sensitive and/or personal nature falling into the wrong hands.  Many potentially useful laptop electronics are land filled or destroyed instead of being reused. By some estimates only 2% of “recycled” personal computers are ever used by someone else. Responding to this challenge and supported by a grant from Dell, the author and his research colleagues challenged teams of advanced students from engineering, design and marketing to create innovative new uses for discarded laptops and their components. The brief focused on the needs of subsistence farmers in developing regions of the world. Results included a number of innovative designs ranging from lighting to crop monitoring. The project results and design envisionings address a number of critical farming needs and demonstrate how innovative thinking by bright young minds can extend product life cycles through refurbishments and component reuse.

This session will explore the growing problem of discarded consumer electronics and how collaborative design education and research involving innovation teams of students and faculty can begin to address this growing problem. Presented will be the results of a cross-disciplinary research project supported by Dell, Inc. exploring new uses for discarded laptop computers.  The semester long experiential study was conducted in the Product Innovation Research Laboratory (PIRL) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. A sustainable design innovation strategy was embraced throughout with a goal of demonstrating how we can change our existing cradle to grave manufacturing and distribution system to a closed-loop cradle-to-cradle model.