Recycling keyboard plastics in an interesting, somewhat performative way

 

Upon visiting the remakery, I discovered a large number of old keyboards, more or less all made of off-white ABS plastic. They were testimony to the times changing; more and more people are using laptops with built in keyboards, and keyboards have improved enough that there are a massive amount of older model keyboards lying unused and derelict in random deposits around the world. Many of them are made of ABS, which is a thermoplastic and can be reheated and reformed. Though keyboards and the plastic they are made of aren’t the most “e” of all “e-waste,” they are still part of the massive problem of e-waste going unsalvaged. As computer technology continues to improve, these older keyboards will continue to pile up and up, their plastic unreclaimed.

According to a study by Science Advances, the first global analysis of all plastics ever made—and their fate, of the 8.3 billion metric tons that has been produced, 6.3 billion metric tons has become plastic waste. Of that, only nine percent has been recycled. If present trends continue, by 2050, there will be 12 billion metric tons of plastic in landfills. That amount is 35,000 times as heavy as the Empire State Building. 275,000 tonnes of plastic are used each year in the UK. That is around 15 million bottles per day which are classed as ‘single use’. According to David Palmer-Jones, CEO for Suez recycling and recovery in the UK, “The UK is at a tipping point and without radical change to improve England’s household recycling rates the UK will not meet its EU agreed target of 50% recycling rates by 2020,”
     

     E-waste has been identified as the fastest growing waste stream in the world at present, according to a study in the Journal of Health and Pollution. The increasing ‘market penetration’ in the developing countries, ‘replacement market’ in the developed countries and ‘high obsolescence rate’ make e-waste one of the fastest waste streams, according to the Indian Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. Major types of polymers (plastics) in the e-plastics stream include acrylonitrile, butadiene styrene (ABS), polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP), polycarbonate (PC), polyvinylchloride (PVC), high impact polystyrene (HIPS), or blends of these thermoplastics.

I’m focusing on the plastics associated with e-waste, specifically those used in keyboards. Most older genereation keyboards of the 90s and 2000s were made out of injection-molded ABS. Two of the major barriers to e-plastics’ reuse or recycling are the mixed plastic content and the presence in the e-plastics of flame retardants (FR), of which two classes in particular, the brominated flame retardants (BFR) and organo-phosphorus flame retardants (OPFR), have associated health concerns, according to a paper by William Mills and Robert A. Tatara. These health concerns limit how easy or simple it is to  directly reuse these plastics in compression molding, as well as the expected air bubbles and imperfections of the process.

However on a smaller scale, or in a design arena where small structural flaws don’t matter, there is great opportunity for re-use of these plastics. In combination with digital fabrication techniques and other reclaimed materials such as scrap wood and other computer parts, these plastics can be harvested and reheated/molded into complex shapes, shells, or bodies for new products. Currys PC world offers a free recycling service for any unwanted electronic object, and most countries and states have program for the same. However, most of these specify e-waste, and keyboards, though they do contain at least a small circuit board, are mostly plastic and sheets of mylar, etc. There is very little precious metal to be retrieved from them. The Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive (WEEE Directive) is the European Community Directive 2012/19/EU on waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) which, together with the RoHS Directive 2002/95/EC, became European Law in February 2003.

There are now over 800 registered IT recycling companies in the UK, the majority of which were established after the introduction of the WEEE Directive in 2007. What is of most concern is that an alarming number of these companies are not providing a bonafide service, which could leave you liable. With that being said, perhaps keyboards and similar items should not just be recycled, but given second life. The thermoplastic most are made out of can be used as a sort of sculpting material, and upon a quick search for computer parts being repurposed artistically reveals a large number of precedents. In fact, there are many people that have discovered many ways of repurposing many different parts of modern keyboards, including the conductive mylar sheets.

 

Much of my early ideation related to the silver-traced mylar sleeves under the keys of the keyboards I dissected, which were conductive. I was fascinated with turning them into something useful but found it very difficult to realize, and that the concept of flat conductivity was interesting but tough to harness effectively in this form.

 

Reheating and molding the keyboards wasn’t too hard after cutting them into smaller pieces. I found that if I used a heat gun and some pliers, the pieces could be stretched and hand-formed, although I’m sure the hot air coming off of the plastic wasn’t the healthiest. I was sure to do this in a well-ventilated area. That being said, it was remarkably easy to reform the plastic and I began imagining what form I could use these technique for. I decided to make the body for a lamp out of these warped, decidedly unappealing pieces of plastic as a sort of statement piece about what we can do with the plastics in keyboards worldwide that are either lying dormant or unrecycled.

I used a store-bought lamps wiring and light socket (after getting to them with a hammer) inside the body I molded out of plastic. As I continued I realized that the shape I’d chosen didn’t make the lamp any prettier, and a symmetrical volume might have looked better.

The final artefact is not a good-looking thing by any means, but is definitely striking and different.

The point is this: we waste a lot of plastic, and a lot of our electronic appliances seem unaproachable after they fall into disrepair or become out of fashion. This lamp proves that anybody with the will can take their unused thermoplastics, of which there are plenty, and easily and safely reuse them. There are a massive amount of these plastics out there, just waiting to become something new. Maybe not pretty, but new.