Tuesday, January 27, 2009

eWaste recycling in South Africa

eWaste is a particularly difficult issue to deal with as it contains many different materials and lots of extremely hazardous substances. Incorrect disposal of electronic items can result in many of those dangerous chemicals entering into our environment through water systems and air pollution.

eWASA, the eWaste Association of South Africa, is an organisation concerned with the handling of eWaste and represents the various industry stakeholders (like eWaste recyclers and disposers). Their website provides useful information about where to recycle your eWaste and how the eWaste recycling process works. They also have a really fascinating (and distrubing) list of hazardous substances and what items those substances are contained in. I recommend that everybody read that list (compulsory reading for engineers and product developers).

Refurbishing, reuse and extending the life–cycle of electronic products is an important (and preferable) way to reduce eWaste and the hazards associated with recycling and disposing of these products.

eWaste recycling is expensive and the costs are not necessarily covered by the resale of recovered materials. eWASA would like to introduce an advanced recycling fee (ARF) for products which will eventually become a part of the eWaste stream. This fee will be collected by the supplier at the time of sale and used to fund end–of–life recyling. Exactly how the ARF will be collected and distributed is not yet clear. Will certain items, such as CRTs, attract a higher ARF due to greater recycling costs? We will have to wait and see.

South Africa currently has no legal framework which deals specifically with eWaste, and unlike the EU's RoHS directive, we have no laws to govern the materials used in the products that we make. I have been quite surprised in my dealings with manufacturers of printed circuit boards and assembly houses that they even still offer leaded products (because people are still using them). There are many benefits in removing these hazardous substances from your product and any issues with the alternative lead–free options have already been resolved. It is our responsibility as designers to remove these substances from our products. South Africa should introduce legislation to govern the use of hazardous materials so that we can avoid future health crises.

We need more people to be aware of, and start recycling eWaste. Fortunately Makro and Fujitsu–Siemens have partnered together with an eWaste recycler, Desco Electronic Recyclers, and begun providing eWaste collection bins in some of their stores. This will help to create awareness of how to correctly handle and recycle eWaste. eWASA's website has a full list of eWaste collection points in South Africa.

Please design and recycle wisely – it is good for you, me, and our environment.

Photo courtesty of Stephen Bullivant, licensed under a creative commons license.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Fast ideas, slow patents

Making products is more important than making patents. I like the way that Seth Godin put it at the end of this post about selling ideas:

"Side note: the more complicated your idea is, the better off you are patenting it. Dean Kamen made his fortune patenting wheelchairs and other devices that you and I could never hope to build. On the other hand, if your idea is simple enough to dream up in a week, the only way you're going to protect it is to build it, fast and well."
Patents are important and have a place in product development, but actually making something important has a far bigger impact on the world. Important does not have to be big or complicated – important solves problems (even small ones) and improves our lives.

In my line of work the whole issue of patents, idea protection and non–disclosure often arises. Protecting an idea in the early conceptual phase is crucially important. At this point anyone that can get hold of the idea has an equal chance of getting an actual product to market – that is why all my communications with clients and potential clients are considered confidential.

There are some problems with trying too hard to protect your idea,
  1. It may not be worth protecting

    Many ideas are not patentable, as prior art already exists. Non–patentable ideas still have value – great beats good, remarkable beats mediocre. Improving on existing products, or turning old ideas into real products are important functions which need to happen continuously.

  2. It slows things down

    While you are busy building a legal fortress around your idea other people are busy building working versions of theirs. Having a market share and being ahead of everyone else may matter more than having the legal rights to an idea which has passed its sell by date.

  3. Your idea is out there

    When you patent something it becomes public – everyone knows what you are doing. Competitors may be able to do something innovative with your ideas sooner than you can.

  4. It might not work

    It is possible to design around patents. If your competitors can come up with their own innovative ways to compete in the same market then your patent may not win you much in the long run. You can still compete, you can still be the best, but what you do keeps you ahead, not a legal document.

  5. You have to be able to enforce it

    Regardless of what legal protection you have you still need to be able to enforce it. That means legal fees – can your afford to pay for your protection? It is certainly necessary in some cases, but which would you rather do: fight legal battles or make things that matter?

So if legal protection is not all that it is made out to be, what do you do then? Keep it secret and get your idea onto the market. Develop it into a great product, stay ahead of your competitors and keep innovating. Make sure your great ideas see the light of day – avoid letting them get bogged down in legal paperwork.

You will need to work hard, you will need to stay ahead, and yes, a competitor might just be better than you at it and there will not be any legal papers to throw at them. There is risk involved no matter how you approach it.

There are so many brilliant ideas out there. You probably already know a couple that will change your industry or the way your work. You probably read about one on a blog last week. Making those ideas real is important.

Engineer Simplicity helps companies and people develop ideas into real electronic products. I can help you move your idea from conception through to production. Contact me with your ideas – I will keep them safe and confidential.

Images courtesty of Alexandre Dulaunoy, licensed under a Creative Commons license.