Tipping the E-waste Scale with Biodegradable Electronics

May 29, 2021 by Antonio Anzaldua Jr.

E-waste is a constant environmental concern, especially as it grows more each year. Could focusing on EoL design practices and creating biodegradable components be the solution?

Over the last 15 years, over 50 million tons of electronic waste have been discarded annually. Electronic waste (e-waste) is piling up at recycling centers with non-functional household and business electronic devices. 

With 2020 workplace restrictions easing up, this may be the time for manufacturers and developers to focus on new ways to avoid large amounts of e-waste. 


An infographic with e-waste 2018 facts.

An infographic with e-waste 2018 facts. Image used courtesy of the UN Global E-waste Monitor


Recently, researchers and companies have been working towards designing more eco-friendly electronics. Before diving into the solutions, it is imperative to consider the full scope of the e-waste situation and what goes into a product's end-of-life (EOL).


Why is there E-Waste?

From that disposed of e-waste, only 20% is recycled correctly, leaving the remaining waste to pollute the environment by ending up in a landfill. 

How does 80% of proposed e-waste not get disposed of properly? 

Costs. It takes more money for manufacturers to refine and reuse material versus starting over with new raw material. It becomes challenging to reuse material since any electronic device disposed of must have substances removed to function as required. 


A general cycle for e-waste and its processing.

A general cycle for e-waste and its processing. Image used courtesy of Green Initiatives


There can be over a thousand different substances such as gold, copper, nickel that cost more to remove without damaging the device or board.

This removal isn't an easy issue to solve; it is complicated. A hard truth to swallow is how the engineer could be just as responsible for increasing e-waste as the developers, manufacturers, and consumers. 


The End of The Line

A product's end-of-life (EOL) is an inevitable time when the device no longer accepts updates or an internal system issue that is beyond fixing.

It is even believed that some manufacturers create devices with EOL in mind to have consumers ready to buy the next-gen device. Some developers can't escape a short device lifespan, specifically in the IoT world. 

These IoT developers face several challenges when trying to create new devices that will have long lifespans. 

For starters, IoT devices eventually fall into "bricking" states, where the functionality of a device is as useful as a common brick. 

In terms of reusing recycled material, IoT devices get discarded by users to add to the piles of e-waste due to custom hardware composed of material deemed unrecyclable. These devices will end up as a part of the improperly disposed e-waste. 

When designing a product's EoL, are there ways a designer can prevent some of the e-waste issues?

In their research into this question, the University of Edinburgh observed potential design strategies and reported on what can be instilled during the design process to support the continuity of the material life of IoT devices, even after they reach the end-of-life phase. 

One potential route for developers is to make IoT devices environmentally ready by simplifying the materials used to have more accessible recycling efforts.

Another method is called a "cradle to cradle" philosophy in which devices are created so that once they reach their EOL phase, their waste is considered "food" for the next generation. This solution would allow consumers to feel more inclined to stay with a specific manufacturer versus leaving to a competing provider, increasing and maintaining a steady demand curve while cutting down on e-waste.  


A Closer Look at an IoT Life-Cycle 

Lantronix is a global provider of robust data access and management solutions in the IoT world. Lantronix has also chimed in on IoT being easily discarded once it reaches the EOL phase with a paper on design considerations.

There are four stages of an IoT device; design, deployment, ongoing management, and decommissioning. The first stage is critical. Developers have to heavily consider the following three stages of the product life cycle to ensure that the product can easily support each step. 


Out of the four stages of the product life cycle, the 1st and 4th remain the most critical.

Out of the four stages of the product life cycle, the 1st and 4th remain the most critical. Image used courtesy of Lantronix


Current models must be prepared to bridge new functionalities of future products to become environmentally suitable and avoid becoming another piece of e-waste. Engineers and programmers have the added responsibility of generating device-code bases that can be altered and integrated into next-gen devices without compromising performance or security. 

If it wasn't challenging enough, the final stage, decommissioning, is where engineers, programmers, product supervisors, and stakeholders have to be on the same page to have a clean transition into the newest model of their IoT product line.

Though these stages each present different challenges, research is being done on creating more recyclable components and devices to help ease the e-waste design situation. 


Recyclable Printed Electronics Fully Demonstrated 

One way to help combat the issue of e-waste is to make electronics more eco-friendly. Last month, researchers at Duke University announced that they had developed an industry-first, fully recyclable printed, electronic component, a carbon-based transistor. 


An example of a recyclable printed electronic.

An example of a recyclable printed electronic. Image used courtesy of Duke University's Pratt School of Engineering


When it comes to recycling, the researchers also agree that electronic devices are difficult to recycle, mainly due to having silicon. By keeping large amounts of improperly discarded e-waste in mind, the researchers explored having a functional transistor made out of carbon inks that can be printed onto paper or other flexible, environmentally friendly surfaces.  

Transistors are utilized in complex designs such as power controls, logic circuits, and various sensors. The study yielded a method of suspending crystals of nanocellulose that were extracted from wood fibers to create an ink that acts as an insulator. This method was coupled with carbon nanotubes and graphene inks, which are relatively standard semiconductor practices. 

The game-changer is the wood-derived dielectric ink: nanocellulose. 

Aaron Franklin, the Addy Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Duke University, mentions that nanocellulose can be used as packaging and is fully biodegradable. Franklin hopes that exploring printable ink devices and how these new materials function will provide much-needed progress for devices EoL.

Despite how groundbreaking Duke University's research sounds, they aren't the only ones researching biodegradable, printed electronics.


Introducing Biodegradable Printed Electronics 

Another approach to address electronics' short life cycles is to build on bio-friendly materials that can avoid becoming an environmentally detrimental pile of e-waste. 

A study from Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), presented a way to develop optoelectronic technologies that would contact the human body. These findings display energy-efficient digital printing techniques such as inkjet printing to potentially be used to fabricate various devices that could be worn innocuously on the skin without being harmful or losing performance abilities. 

The researchers presented a fully printed electrochromic (EC) display that was fully biodegradable. It was fabricated through biocompatible poly with gold electrodes and a gelatin-based electrolyte. 


Karlsruhe Institute of Technology's (a) device architecture, (b) printed devices, (c) device with battery in use, and (d) showing movement ease with the device. Image used courtesy of Pietsch et al


 Through inkjet printing, this component has a low-energy consumption process, ideal for wearable electronics. With a stress test, the material experienced bending over uneven surfaces at 10,000x cycles. 

The flexibility and durability claim to withstand the stress caused by body movement as a wearable device. The only issue is that the short-life span trait isn't going away. 

IoT devices are still susceptible to an early EOL, but the positive takeaway would be that these devices will be biodegradable. They can continue to be complex and full of various substances as long as they remain environmentally friendly, diminishing the size of the e-waste pile that ends up back in the earth in a landfill. 


The Future of E-Waste 

Engineers and developers are working towards minimizing e-waste by adjusting the current design process, printing recycled devices, and creating biodegradable components. There is promising work being done by a few manufacturers but not enough to slow down the rise of e-waste. 

The main foreseeable setbacks are funds and time. Are manufacturers willing to invest time, money, and research into adapting new environmentally friendly methods? Will budget issues continue to dictate how e-waste is addressed? Only time will tell.