Environmental impact of e-waste targeted by sustainable electronics research
Image credit: VTT/Ecotronics
Reducing the environmental load of the electronics sector and enabling new applications, such as flexible bio-based plastic smart labels, is the aim of the ECOtronics project in Finland.
The amount of electronics produced is expected to increase considerably in the coming years, with the use of raw materials in the sector expected to double by 2050. The amount of electronic waste has also almost doubled over the past 16 years and only 20 per cent of this waste is collected efficiently.
The EU is calling for more sustainable solutions from the electronics industry. The VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland is helping to develop them by combining printed electronics, bio-based materials and ecodesign thinking.
The environmental load of the electronics industry can be significantly reduced by moving from traditional manufacturing processes to printed electronics and from fossil-based materials to bio-based materials.
By using printing processes, up to 90 per cent of fossil materials can be replaced in some applications. At the same time, energy consumption may decrease to one fifth compared with traditional processes. Ecodesign promotes the efficient use, recycling and recovery of valuable materials.
VTT is bringing its expertise and extensive knowledge in these areas, as well as in both electronics manufacturing and the use of new environmentally friendly materials. In the ECOtronics project, funded by Business Finland, this expertise has been combined to assess the environmental load of electronics and to develop sustainable solutions and determine their feasibility.
Liisa Hakola, leader of the ECOtronics project at VTT, said: “The environmental impact of electronics is caused by, among other things, the used raw materials and manufacturing processes and the use, recycling and post-treatment of products. The environmental load must be examined on a case-by-case basis throughout the life cycle of the product so that the right route to reduce it may be found.”
The VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland and its university partners have tested the feasibility of new sustainable solutions through demo cases. The subject of one demo was a smart label printed on bio-based plastic, which is powered by a supercapacitor rechargeable with solar panels, even indoors.
The 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 solution is also suitable for monitoring different spaces and for monitoring moisture, pressure or damage sustained by products. Another demo case concerned a biodegradable antenna connected to a circuit board, which is suitable for wireless transfer of measurement data.
One of the advantages of bio-based materials is that their properties can be modified in many ways. This enables completely new applications. Maria Smolander, research team leader at VTT, explained: “For example, a smart label is light, thin and flexible. It is suitable for, among other things, wearable electronics for which traditional heavy, thick and rigid circuit boards are not suitable.”
VTT helps companies in the electronics industry find new solutions for sustainable electronics. Eight companies interested in sustainable electronics participated in the ECOtronics project. For example, the package industry operator Iscent received help in material selection and testing, while the health technology developer GE Healthcare was advised about ecodesign and environmental impact assessment.
“We wanted to explore and test new bio-based materials, and we found new alternatives, one of which was perfectly suited to our customer. This helped us to sign a significant contract,” said Raimo Korhonen, partner and project manager, Iscent Oy.
GE Healthcare wanted to investigate the environmental impact of its new pulse oximeter, which is a cordless device placed on a patient's finger.
“We compared the environmental load of our product concept with the alternatives available on the market and examined possible benefits and problem areas in terms of environmental impact. The significance of the environmental load was also assessed by comparing it with examples from everyday life, such as one litre of milk. In this comparison, the product concept's performance was excellent,” said Juha Virtanen, hardware project leader, GE Healthcare.
In addition to Iscent and GE Healthcare, the Finnish companies New Cable Corporation; Paptic; Green Company Effect; Stora Enso; Vaisala, and Confidex participated in the ECOtronics project. VTT's research partners are Tampere University, LUT University and LAB University of Applied Sciences.
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