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Energy COOL: From old VCR to new roadsign

November 1st, 2011 · No Comments

Trade show spaces often have interesting surprises and value at conferences.

In 2011, the White House’s “GreenGov” conference is structured as a private conference – with sponsors and many companies showing things on the trade show. While discomfited by this structure (as opposed to a government event something truly open to the interested public), the conference’s trade show has some interesting surprises. One of those came highlighted in a give-away in the registration package: Image Microsystems. The give-away looked like something that simply contributed to my likely waste stream: a stop sign. Sometimes, however, giveaways work to catch attention.

From the sticker on the back of the stop sign:

MicroStrateTM is made from 100% e-waste plastic from spent inkjet and toner cartridges, and plastics from idled electronic assets.

Okay, they’ve started to get my interest.

Survey the closets, attics, garages, shelves of America’s homes and you will find old VCRs (remember those), TVs, computers, etc … “idled electronic assets”. And, most Americans when cleaning out those old electronics, just dump this into the trash can with uncertain paths from the trash can into polluting our air and water. In the United States, alone, there is some 2.5 million tons of e-waste annually (with this amount growing with every passing year) with roughly 20 percent of that is recycled.. Much of the ‘recycling’ actually occurs overseas, in rather questionable environmental (social justice) situations. And, at the end of the process, some portions of the waste streams remain just that – waste. One of those (very) low value elements of the e-waste stream has been the plastic ‘boxes’.

ImageMicrosystems has, with MicroStrateTM, developed a path to turn that zero value waste stream into a useful product. And, a useful product that displaces a somewhat troubled and higher pollution in life-cycle product: aluminum signs. With raising commodity prices amid economically challenging times, aluminum signs have become a target for theft to the tune of $millions / year across the country in direct sign costs along with employee time cost to replace signs and uncertain costs in terms of increased risks due to poorly signed streets. Signs made from e-waste streams don’t have that same scrap sale value which represents a pretty decent deterrent to theft (other than the teen-ager looking for a sign for their bedroom wall).

As for the pollution stream,

Imagine America decreasing the carbon footprint of all street signs by 75% and at the same time keeping millions of pounds of toxic e-waste plastics from entering landfills and overseas dumping grounds.

Image Microsystems claims that their product requires significantly less energy to produce signs and, unlike the significant chemical processing required to strip old aluminum signs for recycling, is extremely straightforward to recycle into new signs in a closed-loop process.

Finally, Image Microsystems merits credit for its philosophy (focused on reuse, before recycling; recycling with zero waste; “zero landfill and no overseas dumping policies”) and for its business practices. Developed over years, the company has one of the highest percentages of deaf and otherwise disabled employees in the private sector. In partnership with the Texas School for the Deaf, Image Microsystems offers paid internships which created a steady stream of qualified job applicants such that 40% of the workforce is deaf.

MicroStrateTM offers an interesting opportunity moving forward to making a real dent in reducing waste in both plastics in landfill terms and in reduced aluminum usage. It is at a transition stage with the product moving from a demonstration and test facility into production, with the factory south Austin, Texas, scheduled to go online early in 2012. With a projected 80,000 lbs per day capacity, the theoretical maximum throughput of 14,600 tons, this facility will not make a meaningful dent in America’s and the global e-waste stream (which is, according to the UN, roughly 50 million tons per year). If a success, the question then becomes how many times (and how fast) this plant can be replicated (around the world).

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Tags: Energy · energy cool · plastic