Sustainability & environmentally responsible electronics manufacturing
01 November 2022
E-waste is a health & environmental hazard, containing toxic additives & hazardous substances, such as mercury, lead & cadmium, explains Emma Armstrong, Group Commercial & Electronics Sustainability Director at sustainable & flexible electronics production specialist, In2tec here...
This article was originally featured in the November 2022 issue of EPDT magazine [read the digital issue]. And sign up to receive your own copy each month.
E-waste can leak harmful toxins into the ground and air, which when breathed in or ingested, can cause serious illnesses. It can cause damage to the brain and coordination system; children have been known to suffer from memory and cardiovascular issues; and adults can experience effects on liver function and sperm quality. The long list of the detrimental effects of e-waste are frighteningly and devastatingly real…
Moreover, consider the wider world as we know it. Global temperature increases, warming oceans, shrinking ice sheets, glacial retreat, rising sea levels, as well as acidification of the oceans: these are all evidenced impacts of man’s continued production of CO2 emissions. There is currently more carbon dioxide in our atmosphere than at any other time in human history.
The evidence for rapid climate change is compelling, so the aim here is not to spend time on the adverse impacts of climate change; but rather to try to help us understand the current reality and the possible solutions that the electronics industry can – and must – provide for the sustainability of the human race. It’s that serious!
“I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that the environmental impact of e-waste is on a trajectory to become one of the major ecological disasters – eclipsing both plastic and chemical waste,” says Emma Armstrong, Group Commercial & Electronics Sustainability Director, In2tec.
She adds, “So why don’t we hear much about it? Because we don’t currently have an effective solution. Even the idea of trying to implement a change for e-waste recycling is financially crippling. So, more often than not, the solution is just to ‘bury it or burn it’!”
The drive to zero emissions is a no-brainer, but while pondering these realities, it is imperative to understand the other side of the coin. Achieving Net Zero emissions is about inherent fundamental design concept changes. Net Zero isn’t simply about reducing our usage and energy consumption. There needs to be improvements in the materials used, paradigm shifts in the process of manufacture, and crucially, end-of-life reusability or recyclability, as well as environmentally sound and safe disposal. All this must not be forgotten.
There is focus to save the environment with the drive to Net Zero, but if it’s done without thinking about the recyclability of these consumables, and the reuse of fragile and depleting resources, there is exposure to as big a risk in the greedy consumption of those resources. More importantly, we continue to poison the very nature of what we strive to protect!
Today, there is focus on the plastics and metalworks integrated within the electronic products manufactured, and compliance with WEEE (waste electrical & electronic equipment) requirements to attempt to dispose of the products in a more controlled manner – but it doesn’t diminish that there is a fundamental issue with the recyclability of the printed circuit board assemblies that are the backbone of every one of the electronic products consumed.
Printed circuit board assemblies (PCBAs) typically achieve only 3-5% recyclability, with harness and wiring looms, at best, 20% recycled. So, here’s the rub: it takes significant energy (creating considerable CO2e or carbon dioxide equivalent), effort and process time to extract the re-usable properties and materials of a populated PCB (printed circuit board). In turn, this equates to a cost, often too high for this to be of commercial value. Invariably this means the materials are buried, burned in a controlled manner, or shipped from the shores of developed countries and dumped in the most underdeveloped.
In 2019, the global e-waste generated amounted to 53.6 million metric tonnes (Mt), as reported in the UN’s Global E-waste Monitor. This is substantially more than the weight of all adults in Europe combined. The report also details that of the 53.6 Mt of e-waste generated, only 17.4% was collected and recycled. The gold, platinum, copper and other high-value recoverable materials was conservatively valued at over $57 billion – a sum greater than the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of most countries – and was mostly dumped or burned, rather than being collected for re-use.
Furthermore, e-waste rates are rising at an alarming rate. The UN Global E-waste Monitor’s projections show that by 2030, e-waste generation will amount to over 74 million metric tonnes per year, almost doubling annual e-waste in just 16 years.
Landfill is often seen to be the cheapest and easiest solution! But at what cost?
So, is this our legacy?
The problem lies, as noted, in the fact that it is currently not commercially viable to recycle PCBAs – and therefore, there exists a thriving black market in the illegal transportation of e-waste to developing countries. Once there, it is unethically processed, damaging the environment – and every living thing in it.
Interpol found that 1 in 3 containers of waste exported from Europe contained illegal e-waste! As far back as November and December 2012, Operation Enigma saw the participation of the police, customs, port authorities, environmental and maritime law enforcement agencies of seven European and African countries. The operation aimed to identify and disrupt the illegal collection, recycling, export, import and shipping of discarded electronic products, such as computers, televisions and other electronic devices, before they are dumped in landfill, or other sites where they can cause severe environmental and human harm.
Checks were conducted at major ports in Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, all within Europe – a region considered to be a common source of electronic waste being shipped internationally; and in Ghana, Guinea and Nigeria, citing Africa as a region considered to be the destination of this waste. Almost one third of the checks resulted in the discovery of illegal electronic waste.
So, what can we do about it?
In response to the simple question, ‘how can we increase the ability to recycle and re-use e-waste?’ Emma Armstrong stated, “The answer to date has driven us to where we are today, dumping it in the ground, or burning it, and hoping the future will not catch up with us. But, at In2tec, we believe ReUSE® Highly Recyclable Electronic Circuit Boards are the answer, offering the paradigm shift the World is calling for.”
In2tec and Sun Chemical have developed a series of patented ultra-low temperature releasable adhesives, manufacturing (ReUSE®) and recycling processes (ReCYCLE™) for the fabrication of electronic circuit assemblies.
“This technology allows for components to be populated at low temperatures, saving energy, and easily removed from PCBs using little more than boiling water. This ‘unzipping’ technique means even complex components can be extracted easily and cleanly from used PCBs, and returned for a second life, driving a circular economy of used parts, and allowing for PCBs to have up to 100% recyclability. With the use of highly recyclable substrates, such as aluminium or nano-cellulose, we can realise the first 100% recyclable printed circuit board assemblies,” explained Armstrong.
Such a process means that a component’s usefulness does not have to end just because the PCB on which it is mounted has reached its end of useful life. These components can be recycled and re-used, meaning that they no longer need to go straight to landfill or be burned; and just as importantly, the valuable resources and precious metals do not need to be continually mined and depleted. In creating a truly circular economy, with the generation of secondary markets in used components, their life is extended beyond discontinued OEM (original equipment manufacturers) parts, thereby reducing the demand for illegal-market component ‘copies’.
The UK has the potential to lead the world in taking a stand on PCB and electronics recyclability and component re-use. If it is no longer buried or burned, the health hazard created by e-waste is eliminated – and this helps to protect the world for future generations.
Carbon footprint reduction, circular economy and e-waste reduction are the three main goals we are striving for today on our path to environmental impact minimisation. ReUSE® technologies have genuinely provided a start – and the impetus to develop solutions from the ground up.
The latest figures from 2021 show that e-waste reached a staggering 57.4 Mt. If ReUSE® and ReCYCLE™ technologies and processes were implemented in just 2.5% of global printed circuit board assemblies, every year it would save the equivalent CO2 of planting 91 million mature trees! If only 10% of PCBAs manufactured in 2023 are recyclable, it could prevent 6 Mt of e-waste – equivalent to the weight of 600 Eiffel Towers!
“You don’t need to change the functionality, quality or fit of your electronics to significantly improve their sustainability value or circular opportunity. But globally, we must all change our approach to electronics design and manufacture to address these problems together,” added Armstrong.
In2tec’s design philosophy is that nothing is impossible. In2tec has been at the forefront of innovation in flexible electronics and smart HMIs for 20+ years. It started its work towards developing truly sustainable electronics in 2007 – and since has continued its path to sustainability.
British-based In2tec’s stated mission is to ‘Protect the World for Future Generations by Inspiring Sustainable Electronics’. Emma Armstrong explained: “We will continue to do this by hiring next-generation thinkers, innovators and entrepreneurs to make sure we are able to meet our goal of ceasing landfill e-waste through 100% recycling of substrates, conductive circuits and electronic components, via ultra-low energy unzipping and second-life usage for constituent parts.”
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