Materials World magazine
1 Mar 2009

Unsustainable behaviour is encouraged by rapid developments in electronic equipment.
Martin Goosey, Industrial Director of the Innovative Electronics Manufacturing Research Centre at Loughborough University, UK, discusses the alternatives.

The electronics industry provides us with devices that are essential to our modern way
of life, yet their sustainable opportunities have yet to be fully realised. Modern electrical and electronic equipment is typically characterised by rapid new developments, short product lifecycles, improved performance and reduced cost in each new generation of product – factors that encourage unsustainable behaviour. Examples of such products are mobile phones, which are often treated as fashion items and replaced long before their functional design lifetimes have expired.

Lifecycle legislation

In recent years, the European Commission (EC) has introduced so-called ‘Producer Responsibility Legislation’ to address the problem. This is being driven by the EC to achieve more sustainable approaches to resource use. It also aims to divert end-of-life products for re-use or recycling, proscribes the use of certain hazardous materials and drives reductions in energy consumption throughout the whole of a product’s lifecycle. Within Europe, key legislation includes Directives on Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE), the Restriction of the use of certain Hazardous Substances (RoHS), Batteries and Accumulators and Energy using Products Directives, as well as Regulations on the Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals. Similar legislation is now being implemented by many countries around the world including China, Korea and the USA.

Materials in the making

Much attention has therefore been focused on the materials used in electronics and their impact on people and the environment. In recent years campaigning organisations such as Greenpeace have succeeded in embarrassing a number of major manufacturers by highlighting the presence of hazardous materials in their products and manufacturing processes. In the face of this pressure, and the legislation, the electronics industry has been forced to develop materials and processes that are less toxic and more acceptable in the context of both environmental impacts and sustainability.

Perhaps the most well known recent example is the change brought about by the proscription of lead in many electronics applications in order to meet the requirements of the RoHS Directive. Traditional tin-lead solder alloys have largely been replaced by lead-free alternatives, such as tin-silver- copper, that are said to be less toxic and more environmentally acceptable.

Applications for other materials such as mercury, cadmium and hexavalent chromium are also impacted by the RoHS Directive and there are increasing questions about the continued use of certain brominated flame retardants in electronics. Various companies have produced more acceptable alternatives for these materials and, in the case of brominated flame retardants, halogen-free flame retardant systems have been introduced commercially and are appearing in products ahead of any legislative requirements.

Tackling disposal

There is also a need to address the end-of-life issues associated with electrical and electronics equipment. In the past, large quantities of WEEE were consigned to landfill, thus preventing recycling or recovery of the valuable materials and components they contained. In terms of sustainability, there is a preferred hierarchy of approaches at end-of-life which range from extending the life of an existing product, through component and materials recycling, to incineration for energy recovery.

Many electronic products, particularly the more sophisticated devices such as mobile phones, lap tops and personal digital assistants, contain significant quantities of gold, silver, tantalum, palladium and copper, as well as certain plastics, which could be recovered and reused. An interesting example relates to flat panel televisions which are mostly based on liquid crystal displays (LCDs) and contain valuable quantities of, among other things, the liquid crystals and metals such as indium. A project being undertaken by a Technology Strategy Board supported UK-based consortium is currently developing new technologies for recovering these materials from the growing number of LCD items appearing in waste streams.

In related activities, companies such as Axion Polymers, a UK-based plastics recycler, has developed new techniques for sorting and separating mixed polymer waste from end-of-life electronic products and converting it into new materials.

A novel approach to extending the life of electronics equipment has recently been demonstrated by Sheffield based company, Active Recycling Ltd. This involves repurposing redundant electronic products for new applications. For example, repurposed and reprogrammed mobile phones can be used as the central processing units in a wide range of monitoring, control and related applications, thereby obviating the need to manufacture new products with their concomitant high energy and materials demands.

Making progress

For the future, progress will continue to be made in enhancing the performance of electrical and electronics products and these will increasingly be made in a more sustainable manner using less energy intensive processes, fewer hazardous materials and designs that are easier to treat at end-of-life. While this can already often be achieved by industry itself, there are also longer term opportunities that will only be addressed via further R&D into new materials and processes. Motorola has, for example, recently announced an environmentally conscious mobile phone made from recycled plastic bottles which is claimed to be the world’s first carbon neutral phone, as it offsets the carbon dioxide emissions generated during manufacture and distribution. Although legislation and new materials technology can make a significant contribution to implementing more sustainable approaches, there needs to be a shift in individual thinking. This means a move away from commoditising electronics to a situation where products have greater service lives before they are discarded and where refurbishment and reuse have enhanced roles.