What Does the War Against E-Waste Look Like?

April 30, 2020 by Lisa Boneta

Machines that shake out ICs. Biocomposite electronic materials. Advanced recycling processes. It's all part of a growing movement in the engineering community to mitigate e-waste.

We've kept up an ongoing conversation in recent months about e-waste, the seedy underbelly of PCB disposal. To that end, we recently added onto the discussion by exploring the ethics of e-waste: who's responsible? And while these global issues don't have a one-size-fits-all solution, we can measure some progress on the e-waste front by assessing the hands-on ways governments, researchers, and companies are pushing green design practices. 

It's possible that one way to get aspiring engineers into the mindset of environmentally-conscious engineering is by starting to address the issue of e-waste in new and alternative ways. Here are a few ways designers and regulatory bodies are thinking outside the box to combat the 50 million tons of e-waste produced a year.


Shaking Down PCBs for Component Recovery

In 2015, the U.S. government's environmental protection agency (EPA) launched an investigation on how to recover circuit board components to reduce e-waste

The report outlines both a pre-refining and reuse approach.

Pre-refining rapidly and automatically removes integrated circuits (ICs) and other electrical components from printed circuit boards (PCBs) so that only the components are refined for metals recovery. This significantly reduces pollution often associated with burning/smelting precious metals or chemical-based precious metals extractions. The reuse approach carefully and automatically removes ICs and components so that they can be reused. 

Both the pre-refining and reuse methods are implemented with a device called an advanced recovery and recycling (ARR) circuit board depopulator. 


ARR circuit board depopulator

ARR circuit board depopulator removes electronic components from PCBs safely with an IR and a shaker/vibration mechanism. Image used courtesy of the EPA

The depopulator has a conveyor belt where circuit boards travel. From there, the depopulator's infrared radiation heat source melts PCB solder and a shaker removes the ICs and other components from a PCB. The depopulator is automatic, which reduces labor and costs while increasing the speed of component recovery.


Biocomposite Materials for PCB Design

"In order to reduce e-waste, it is significant for 'green' electronics to become mainstream technology," explain researchers Xuechao Xing et al.  "Thus, environmentally friendly and biodegradable natural biological materials are the best choice to realize the sustainable development of the electronics industry."

Xuechao Xing et al. are part of a growing effort to use sustainable materials for circuit board design, namely, by building memory devices from biocomposite electronic materials. Their research assesses how natural biomaterials can be used in information storage, photoelectrochemical sensing, and biomedicine to promote environmentally benign electronics.


The researchers aimed to build memory devices using biocomposite electronic materials.

The researchers aimed to build memory devices using biocomposite electronic materials. Image used courtesy of Xuechao Xing et al. 

The researchers explain that biocomposite materials are important to construct memory devices with different structures and properties because these materials enable the designer to simulate artificial synapses used in applications such as neuromorphic computing.


A New Vision for Electronics 

Then, there's a broader movement to flip the current ways electronics are designed, manufactured, and purchased.

PACE and the UN E-Waste Coalition have proposed a plan for a circular economy for electronics, meaning all materials are kept at their highest values at all times; the system aims to eliminate the possibility of e-waste. This plan starts at the design stage where products are created with intentional durability, reuse, and safe recycling.

PACE and the UN E-Waste Coalition's proposal contrasts what we see in designs today, which often have short life spans because of high consumer demand for "newer" products and planned obsolescence by manufacturers. 


The circular vision

The circular vision is a carefully crafted plan to help minimize e-waste and increase the longevity of electronic components. Image used courtesy of the World Economic Forum 

To further promote this circular vision, PACE and the UN E-Waste Coalition propose several other initiatives:

  1. Buy-back/return systems in which producers allow consumers to return or sell their devices back
  2. Advanced recycling and recapturing in which old recycled materials and components are reintegrated or recycled into newer products
  3. Durability and repair of products that increase the overall longevity of devices
  4. Urban mining that focuses on extracting metals and minerals from e-waste
  5. Reverse logistics, which uses materials from products that can no longer be used and reintegrates them into production

In a previous article, we discussed whether engineers are, in part, culpable for the e-waste problem. At least from the perspective of PACE and the UN, the responsibility for the issue falls on many: engineers, governments, manufacturers, and consumers.


What's Your Take on Green Design Practices?

What are your thoughts on the shift to greener electronic design? What are the constraints that may prevent a designer from making this shift? If you've ever found a way to sustainably design a device, what was your process like? Share your experiences in the comments below.