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Electronics’ Place in the Global Circular Economy

Dec. 11, 2019
A cooperative team of electronics manufacturers and research institutes are teaming up for a new two-year project focused on reducing waste throughout the entire product lifecycle.

A term used to describe the principles of designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems, the “circular economy” is about transforming all the elements of the world’s “take-make-waste” systems and more effectively managing resources.

As part of this commitment, more manufacturers are looking at what can be done with the materials they’re producing after their initial useful lives end. With the rapid pace of technological progress continuing, electronics manufacturers, distributors, and users are all in a good position to help advance the circular economy.

“The resulting innovations mean that many now have access to products from all over the world at affordable prices. These products have brought many of us levels of material comfort unimaginable to previous generations,” the Ellen MacArthur Foundation points out.

The Foundation says the key benefits of deploying circular economy strategies of designing out waste and pollution include $700 million in annual material cost savings in the consumer goods industry and a 48% reduction of carbon dioxide emissions by 2030.

Smart Packages, Disposable Travel Cards

A group of companies and research institutes involved with the development of electronics and optics have launched a new initiative that’s focused on helping to advance the circular economy. Known as “ECOtronics”, the two-year R&D project will find the group working under the leadership of VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland. Funded by Business Finland, the group wants to create recyclable and compostable electronics and optics that use renewable resources.

Pointing to smart packages and disposable travel cards as examples of the increasing applications of electronics in our world, the group says the former communicate wirelessly with consumers and the entire supply chain, while disposable travel cards are easy to read remotely by card readers.

“However, as there are more applications, there is also more electronic waste,” VTT points out in a press release. “It is time to ensure that electronic materials and manufacturing methods are developed to enhance their ecological sustainability. This is the goal of the two-year project, amounting to €4.2 million (about $4.7 million USD) in value.”

An Environmentally-Friendly Approach

The ECOtronics project aims to use materials that can be safely recycled, composted, or even left to decompose in nature. Biodegradable materials will be necessary, for example, in devices used for measuring soil or other environmental conditions. For the project, the materials R&D will focus on substrate materials used as a base for electronic and optical components, replacing the traditional circuit board materials.

In terms of production methods, the project is focused on printing methods by which electronics and optics can be produced directly on thin, roll-to-roll base materials. As an additive manufacturing method, printing fully fills in the component materials so no waste is produced in the manufacturing process.

“We are already producing cables using roll-to-roll techniques, but we want to develop the materials further to make them even more environmentally friendly,” New Cable Corporation Oy’s Antti Backman said in the press release. “I believe that the ECOtronics project will support our goal in many different ways.”

The Whole Product Lifecycle

Along with examining materials and manufacturing methods, the project will also factor in the whole product lifecycle, starting from raw material manufacturing all the way through to waste processing.

“Several companies and research institutes are developing materials, manufacturing methods, and products for electronics and optics each on their own, and many of them have also tackled the environmental issues,” VTT’s Liisa Hakola pointed out in the press release.

“In this project, the new and totally unique aspect is that a group of up to nine companies and four research institutes will join forces to examine the environmental responsibility issues related to electronics and optics,” Hakola continued. “The project supports the development of novel, environmentally friendly products seeking inspiration from [the EU ecodesign directive].”

About the Author

Bridget McCrea | Contributing Writer | Supply Chain Connect

Bridget McCrea is a freelance writer who covers business and technology for various publications.

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