Electronic waste is piling up, collection and recycling efforts are falling short, and access to raw materials is at risk
At VTT, our goal is to set a new standard for sustainability in the electronics industry and offer solutions that increase circularity at every stage of the electronics life cycle.
Five ways to improve sustainability of electronics
By 2030, the global electronic waste will reach 74 Mt, with only 20% collected or recycled properly. The electronics industry is facing major challenges with availability of crucial materials and the increasing pressure to cut its environmental footprint and move toward circularity.
VTT’s Senior Scientist Liisa Hakola introduces five ways to advance circularity and sustainability in electronics. It is important to have a holistic approach to manage different aspects of sustainability throughout the electronics value chain and life-cycle.
1. Design for environment and circularity
Environmental targets need to be incorporated into the design process and technical specifications for products throughout their lifecycle. The objectives of ecodesign and circular design include energy efficiency, material efficiency, flexible and long product lifecycles, upgradeability, and the recyclability of materials, and more.
Products need to be designed in a modular way that allows each component to be separated at any stage of the process and used as secondary materials. VTT helps industrial customers to develop innovative recycled materials, products, processes and other solutions that lengthen the lifecycle of materials and help alleviate raw material shortages.
Sustainable approaches create new business opportunities for companies. In the future, this will give a competitive edge to electronics companies as well.
We work to develop sustainable electronics that are compatible with circular economy at every level – from substances to materials and components to systems.
2. Sustainable choices of raw materials
With global consumption of material resources expected to more than double between 2015 and 2050, the electronics industry needs to start using more and more raw materials that are based on renewable natural resources. One good example are cellulosic materials such as paper and nanocellulose, which VTT has already successfully been using as material platforms for printed electronics.
In the 2019-2022 VTT led ECOtronics project that demonstrated use of several different biopolymer, cellulose and wood based materials as substrates, such as PCBs and smart labels for packaging sector. In addition to substrate materials, more environmental choices can also be made for conductive materials. Some metals commonly used in electronics are rare, critical and/or valuable, and alternatives could be found among abundant materials, such as replacing silver with copper, or use of carbon-based materials.
3. Energy-efficient and material-efficient manufacturing techniques
Many of the traditional technologies used in the manufacture of electronics are based on subtractive processes. Printing and other additive and roll-to-roll compatible technologies, on the other hand, reduce waste during the manufacturing process.
VTT promotes the use of printing technology in the electronics manufacturing through, for example, its printed intelligence pilot plant and by playing an active role in the PrintoCent ecosystem.
As an additive technology, printed electronics is a resource efficient manufacturing process, and compared to etching based processes it consumes less energy and creates less material waste while also avoiding use of harmful chemicals. Opportunities open up for designing new types of electronic products for example for intelligent packaging, wearables, precision agriculture, and diagnostics sectors.
4. Sustainability for the use phase
New technical solutions offer sustainability opportunities also for the product’s use phase, such as reduction of food waste, faster diagnosis, or increased productivity in packaging, diagnostics, and manufacturing sectors, respectively. Also, energy consumption of electronic devices can be decreased. These can be achieved due to low-cost and low-weight devices, and new types of technologies enabled by thin and flexible bio-based materials combined with additive manufacturing. Furthermore, energy harvesting capabilities, such as use of organic photovoltaics (OPV), offer new opportunities for energy autonomous devices.
One example from the ECOtronics project is a smart label that is printed on bio-based plastic and powered by a supercapacitor rechargeable with solar panels, even indoors. This label can be added as a part of the product packaging and can be used to monitor, for example, the transport conditions of food and medicines or other heat-sensitive products. The environmental impact of this smart label is overcompensated with the sustainability improvements in logistics that it enables.
5. End-of-life management for circular economy
Circular economy offers opportunities for management of electronics and electronic waste (e-waste) that is the fastest growing domestic waste stream in the EU. For example, 1.5 billion new mobile phones enter circulation every year. Old handsets end up in desk drawers or in landfill, which means that their materials and components are lost. These materials need to be returned to the industry and reused.
New types of electronic devices also emerge, often enabled by additive manufacturing, such as single-use diagnostic tests for consumers and sensors that measure environmental conditions on farms and for meteorological purposes. Thus, end-of-life management with efficient circular economy models, circular design concepts, and methods for material and component disintegration tailored also for printed electronics, are required.
Biodegradability is also one opportunity in case electronic products would end up accidentally or in purpose into the environment. Since new types of electronic products can end up in different types of waste streams, such as packaging or plastic waste, material and component recycling must be considered case by case.