Manufacturing of electronic products has advanced steadily during the last four decades and resulted in the storage and disposal of outdated products at an alarming rate. This also raises additional issues for electronic waste management. Currently, the electronics sector is confronting a unique challenge: how to reconcile decreasing raw material supply with growing amounts of electronic trash. A balance needs to be struck between the development of the electronics sector, resource availability, and environmental goals in order to assure future supply and avoid sinking in electronic waste (e-waste).

Need for sustainable electronics

The majority of electronic items contain hazardous metals, such as barium and beryllium, brominated flame retardants, as well as precious and rare Earth minerals. Adverse impact for human health can be significant when these are disposed of in landfills or incinerators, where toxic substances can enter the air and water supply. Reducing the use of virgin materials, safeguarding public health, recovering useful elements from e-waste and protecting the environment from the detrimental impacts of improper waste handling and disposal pose major challenges.

Research and technology advancements are required to design more environmentally friendly devices that minimize environmental consequences across the product's lifecycle and raise consumer awareness. Adaptable, innovative and pragmatic electronics design and production have the potential to enhance industry's energy savings, emissions reduction and resource conservation. Creative technologies that merge electronics manufacturing and recycling would support responsible electronics management today while also fostering novel and innovative technologies needed for tomorrow to address market challenges.

Five rules for manufacturing sustainable electronics

To mitigate the environmental effects of waste disposal, electronics producers must adhere to these five sustainability standards. They must try to achieve the aim of progressing from the disposal to reuse of electronic products.

Remanufacture/repair

Consumers may return any electronic goods at the point of purchase and it must then be recycled ethically. As repairability becomes the next buzzword, electronic manufacturers will undoubtedly face more pressure to innovate repair solutions. Development is inevitable, and this is a part of staying up to date and implementing new ideas.

Reuse

Water, heat, energy and materials. This is the most cost-effective and desirable objective of sustainable production. A completely closed loop process in which third parties, such as local government, may participate (in the case with materials). Manufacturers may contribute to this goal by being more energy efficient and utilizing sustainable materials in their manufacturing wherever possible.

Recycle

This is the highest point reached by most e-waste on the sustainability chain. However, the complexity of maintaining part of the value of the original resources employed in electronics manufacture continues to grow. An additional issue entails phasing out the use of harmful compounds in manufacturing. Although printed circuit boards are not deemed fixable and can only be scrapped for metals, many manufacturers are able to entirely strip them down for recycling by hand while wearing protective gear. Calculators, laptops, mobile phones, washing machines, wearable electronics, solar panels and clothes dryers are all recyclable to a limited extent (45% presently) and are prohibitively expensive to recycle.

Recover

Recovery is a possibility, with some partially recycled materials being burnt or converted into biofuels to provide electricity.

Disposal

The least desirable choice, landfill disposal, is the fate of about 80% of e-waste. This holds no value for the industrial economy and has the greatest environmental effects. There is some hope emerging as key innovators in this field decide to eliminate single-use plastics through the application of novel overmolding technologies for plastic recycling.

Another cornerstone for sustainable electronics

Apart from active recycling and consumer education, developing alternatives to conventional electronics may also be a viable option for the next generation. Biodegradable electronics are an especially appealing alternative since they may be discarded without worrying about deteriorated byproducts contaminating valuable landfill space. Additionally, biodegradable electronics are being used in specialized markets such as transitory biomedical devices. Biodegradable electronics are an essential step toward achieving a more sustainable and greener world for humanity.

Only the simplest functioning biodegradable electronics devices have been constructed. Inverters, transistors, solar cells, batteries, heating elements and wireless communication antennas have all been built with completely biodegradable materials. Nevertheless, there are still some electrical components that are not biodegradable, such as memory storage devices and display screens. There has also been no demonstration of a totally biodegradable and functional printed circuit board. Ancillary appliances such as smart communicative devices and wireless routers that are critical in the sphere of the internet of things contribute significantly to e-waste. Even so, it is possible that the majority, if not all, of these devices will eventually be biodegradable.

Conclusion

E-waste is a key factor driving the growth of waste streams, and vanquishing it requires sustainable production to ensure that future generations prioritize waste, pollution and resource inefficiency. Sustainable electronics entails techniques such as design for the environment, cleaner production, expanded producer responsibility, product stewardship, standards and labelling, recycling and remanufacturing.

To contact the author of this article, email engineering360editors@globalspec.com