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 waste and chemical waste.
In 2019 the Global e-waste generation amounted to 53.6 million metric tonnes (Mt), which is substantially more than the weight of all adults in Europe combined, and it is rising at an alarming rate. Projections show that by 2030 the e-waste generation will amount to over 74 million metric tonnes per year, almost doubling annual e-waste in just 16 years.
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!’
Let us be clear, the evidence for rapid climate change is compelling. My aim here is not to spend the time, much as I’d like to, and as much as we have clear evidence to bang the drum about 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
E-waste is a health and environmental hazard, containing toxic additives or hazardous substances such as mercury, lead, and cadmium. E-waste can leak harmful toxins into the ground and the air, that 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 devastatingly real, and the rate at which we’re producing it is faster than a human can count!
Then there’s our 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 are all evidenced impacts of man’s continued production of CO2 emissions. There is more carbon dioxide in our atmosphere than at any other time in history.
The drive to zero emissions is a no-brainer, but whilst pondering these realities it is imperative that we 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. We have to see improvements in the materials used, paradigm shifts in the process of manufacture, and crucially, end-of-life reusability, and environmentally sound and safe disposal. We cannot and must not forget this.
We think about saving the environment with our 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, we expose ourselves to as big a risk in our 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 we manufacture, and we comply with WEEE requirements to attempt to dispose of the products in a more controlled manner, but it doesn’t diminish that we have a real issue with the recyclability of the printed circuit assemblies that are the backbone of every one of the electronic products we consume.
Printed circuit board assemblies (PCBA’s) generally achieve 3-5 % recyclability, with harness and wiring looms at best 20% recycled. So here’s the rub, it takes significant energy (creating considerable CO2e), effort, and process time to extract the reusable properties and materials of a populated PCB. In turn, this equates to a cost, often too high a cost 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.
UN’s Global E-waste Monitor reported that from the 53.6 Mt of e-waste generated in 2019, only 17.4 percent 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 of most countries – was mostly dumped or burned rather than being collected for reuse.
Landfill is often seen to be the cheapest and easiest solution! But at what cost?
So, is this our legacy?
The problem lies, as we’ve noted, in the fact that it is currently not commercially viable to recycle PCBA’s and therefore there is a thriving black market in the illegal transportation of e-waste to developing countries. Once there, it is unethically processed, damages 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 landfills, 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, siting 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?
One simple question repeatedly asked is, “how can we increase the ability to recycle and reuse e-waste?” 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 we believe ReUse® Highly Recyclable Electronic Circuit Boards is the answer and 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.
Such a process means that a components 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 reused 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 true circular economy with the generation of secondary markets in used components, we extend their life beyond discontinued OEM parts and reduce 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 reuse. If we no longer bury it or burn it, we eliminate the health hazard created by e-waste and we help to protect the world for future generations.
Carbon footprint reduction, circular economy, and e-waste reduction are the three main goals we strive 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 of 2021 show that e-waste reached a staggering 57.4 Mt. If we implemented ReUSE® and ReCYCLE™ technologies and processes in just 2.5% of the Global printed circuit board assemblies, every year we would save the equivalent C02 of planting 91 million mature trees!
If only 10% of PCBA’s manufactured in 2023 are recyclable, we 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 its’ sustainability value or circular opportunity. But globally, we must all change our approach to electronics design and manufacture to address these problems together.
My purpose is to help us all achieve it!
Our design philosophy is that nothing is impossible. In2tec has been at the forefront of innovation in Flexible Electronics and Smart HMI for 20+ years. We started our work towards developing truly sustainable electronics in 2007 and since then have continued our path to sustainability.
“We Protect the World for Future Generations by Inspiring Sustainable Electronics” – we will continue to do this through 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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