Five ways towards sustainable electronics

Blog post
Liisa Hakola
Different electronics components in petri dishes

The electronics industry is facing a novel challenge: how to balance dwindling supplies with rising volumes of electronic waste. Overcoming the challenge calls for new, sustainable approaches.

The digitalisation of the industrial sector and the growing volume of digital services are increasing demand for electronics. The global consumption of electronics is forecast to double by 2050. The volume of electronic waste is growing at a rate of 6.5% every year, and only 20% of the waste is recycled efficiently. The status quo fights against the EU’s targets: the EU aims to be carbon-neutral by 2050 and Finland by 2035. The European Commission's Circular Economy Action Plan identifies electronics and ICT as one of the key value chains. 

A balance must be found between the growth of the electronics industry, resources and environmental targets in order to ensure the availability of supplies in the future and to stop us from drowning in electronic waste.

These five solutions could revolutionise the industry: 

1. Ecodesign

Environmental targets need to be incorporated into the design process and technical specifications for products throughout their lifecycle. The objectives of ecodesign include, among others, energy efficiency, material efficiency, flexible and long product lifecycles and the recyclability of materials. Products need to be designed in a way that allows each component to be separated at any stage of the process and used as secondary materials. The EU Ecodesign Directive  establishes general and category-based minimum requirements for products, but ecodesign can also have a broader aim of sustainable lifecycle management. One way towards waste-free circulation is to use secondary raw materials in new industrial ecosystems. VTT helps industrial customers to develop innovative recycled materials, products and processes. These solutions lengthen the lifecycle of materials and help to alleviate raw material shortages. 

2. Sustainable choices of raw materials

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 platforms for printed electronics. VTT participated in a project called ROPAS  between 2011 and 2015, which involved printing sensors onto paper. Nanocellulose could potentially replace PET films in electronic products or FR4 in circuit boards, as it can be practically just as durable. Nanocellulose can be made into considerably thinner films, using less material. Fibre-based nanocellulose is made of renewable natural resources and fully biodegradable.

3. New biodegradable materials

The electronics industry also needs bioplastics that break down safely into carbon dioxide and water. These materials are needed for novel solutions, such as single-use diagnostic tests for consumers and sensors that measure environmental conditions on farms and for meteorological purposes. The electronic components in these applications need to be biodegradable at least over time. Another example is biodegradable smart packaging for food products. Sensors attached to the packaging can be used, for example, to track temperature and to check retrospectively whether the cold chain has been broken. These components have to be biodegradable to prevent issues in the processing of packaging waste. The market for new bioplastics  is growing, and production volumes are on the up. These materials withstand moisture better than cellulose-based alternatives and therefore have potential in terms of developing new solutions. VTT has both state-of-the-art laboratories and pilot plants for developing novel biopolymers and bioplastics.  

4. Energy-efficient and material-efficient manufacturing techniques

Many of the traditional technologies used in the manufacture of electronics are based on stripping away material throughout the process. Printing and other roll-to-roll technologies, on the other hand, are designed to only add material where it is needed. This reduces waste during the manufacturing process. VTT promotes the use of printing technology in the manufacture of electronics through, for example, its  printed intelligence pilot plant  and by playing an active role in the PrintoCent  ecosystem.

5. Recycling of materials and components

Biodegradable solutions are not suited to everything; for these cases, the answer lies in circular economy. For example, 1.5 billion new mobile telephones 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.

Environmentally friendly production processes and models create new business opportunities for companies. In the future, this is sure to give a competitive edge to electronics companies as well. VTT is coordinating a Finnish ecosystem project called ECOtronics, which involves four research institutions and nine businesses working together to develop sustainable solutions for the electronics and optics industries. 

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