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Operational Sustainability Metrics: A Case of Electronics Recycling

TitleOperational Sustainability Metrics: A Case of Electronics Recycling
Publication TypeThesis
Year of Publication2005
AuthorsAtlee JR
AdvisorKirchain RE
Academic DepartmentEngineering Systems Division and the Department of Material Science and Engineering
UniversityMassachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
CityCambridge, MA (USA)
Thesis TypeMaster Thesis
AbstractIn the past 15 years corporations and governments have developed a growing appreciation of the need for"sustainability" and have worked the term into their goals, strategy and mission statements. Despite extensiveefforts to define the term, there is still little clarity on how to move toward sustainability or measure improvements.Further advances toward sustainability will require system specific metrics to assess both current performance andthe impact of operational, technological or regulatory changes on that performance.Not only are there currently few operational metrics by which to practically assess progress toward sustainability,there is also very little understanding of how to judge the effectiveness of such metrics. Electronics recycling is usedin this thesis as a case problem in developing and evaluating system specific performance metrics for sustainability.Electronics recycling is a growing national and international concern due to the increasing volume of waste, thepotential toxicity of the scrap, and reports of improper handling and disposal. Despite this concern, there is limitedunderstanding about the electronics recycling system. There is a need for systematic ways to describe systemfunctioning and quantitative methods to assess system performance. Existing evaluations of eco-efficiency orsustainability are either too aggregated to guide operational decisions or too complex and data intensive to beperformed in the context of a low-margin system.A range of performance metrics were developed and assessed for several electronics recycling operators. Theseincluded measures of resource recovery and environmental performance. These metrics were assessed for theirability to provide insights on resource efficiency comparable to more complex indicators, with minimal datarequired beyond that collected for normal business operations. The informative value of these metrics, their abilityto capture system behavior, and the similarity between evaluations using different metrics were compared.Recovery effectiveness results for three US Electronic recycling operators are presented based on severalquantitative indicators. Results show that current simple measures such as "mass percent to landfill" are notsufficient to fully assess system performance. Composite indicators of systems performance can provide valuableinsights even using currently available data collected by operators for business purposes.
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