According to the UN, globally, the population is expected to rise to 9.3 billion in 2050. With global electronic waste hitting 50 tonnes per annum, population rises mean further urbanisation and increasing affluence in developing and developed nations. As we gather more ‘stuff’ the question becomes is it our problem or someone else’s? With 80% of all the electronic waste we send for recycling being shipped and dumped in emerging countries it is time to acknowledge the answer must be yes and more.
As attitudes change rapidly, repositories of practices are developing with sustainable electronics manufacturing high on the agenda. Conquering E-waste means sustainable manufacturing must ensure future generations keep waste, resource inefficiency and pollution high on their list of things to tackle.
Manufacturing materials should circulate via the shortest loops
In order to minimise the impact of waste finding its way back into the natural environment, electronics manufacturers must try to adopt these five principles of sustainability. Defined by the Institute of Manufacturing (IfM) the goal is to shift from the lowest ideal, disposal to the highest, reuse.
Heat, water, materials, energy. This is the most efficient, highly desirable aim of sustainable manufacturing. A 100% closed loop which may involve third parties such as local government joining the process (in the case with materials). EMS can buy in to this aim by becoming more energy efficient and using sustainable materials wherever they can in manufacturing. Fairphone is the market leader within mobile phone manufacturing a forward-thinking approach to reusing electronics.
Under the WEEE directive consumers can return any electronics product to the point of purchase and then it must be recycled responsibly. EMS will no doubt come under greater pressure to innovate repair solutions as repairability becomes the new watchword. Innovation is bound to come soon, and this is a matter of keeping up and applying the latest ideas.
This is the highest point most electronic waste reaches in the sustainability chain. The challenge in retaining some value of original resources used in electronics manufacturing is progressing. Another challenge is replacing the use of toxic materials in production. Printed circuit boards are not considered repairable and can only be stripped for metals, however, more are managing to strip these down completely for recycling by hand with protective gear. Mobile phones, calculators, laptops, fitbits, washing machines, clothes dryers and solar panels are all just part-recyclable (45% at the moment) and expensive to do so.
Recovery might be an option with some part-recycled items incinerated or turned into biofuels to generate energy.
The least favourite option, waste in landfill is where 80% of E-waste ends up. This returns no value to the industrial system and has the most impact on the environment. There is some light coming through as leading innovations in this area resolve to stop disposing of single use plastics with innovative overmoulding processes for plastic recycling.
The three ways EMS companies can accelerate the transition of manufacturing towards a sustainable system include:
- Resource efficiency (aka: eco-efficiency)
- Manufacturing systems transformation – in being efficient with raw materials, minimising waste and looking at ways to capture value from waste, the biggest resource productivity gains can be made. This means moving from a linear electronics manufacturing model to a cyclical, or ‘circular’ model.
- Sustainable value exchange (aka: sustainable business models) – these require a huge amount of imagination and skill. For example, it’s easier to buy a wind turbine to supply your factory than make energy efficiency cuts, however the biggest profit win will come from increasing efficiency. Building incentive into a system is how companies might change their business models in the years to come. Imagine if a car company retained ownership of the cars they sold, leasing the car out with fuel included in the monthly charge? Suddenly, there’s an incentive for the car manufacturer to build a more fuel-efficient car. Can we change our business model?
The Institute for Manufacturing (IfM) reports SME UK manufacturers who tried to move towards applying only half of the energy efficiency moves of the most efficient companies, would benefit by £10bn per annum in additional profit. Moving halfway towards sustainable management practices should be realistically achievable for most EMS firms.
Plastics overmoulding is one area giving food for thought. For example, Crown Paints is the first UK paint manufacturer to shift from 25% recyclable plastic paint containers to 100%. With energy, waste and water reduction targets and a 12% reduction in Greenhouse Gas Emissions for 2020 in the pipeline, they’re a good example of how to establish a responsible legacy for future generations.
Here at EC Electronics, Managing Director Phil Simmonds comments “Our collective industry has a massive challenge ahead of us with respect to recycling and repairing electronic products and reducing E-waste. We have a commitment to reducing our landfill contribution and we are producing 0% landfill from our UK factories and ISO14001 certified. Sustainability is transforming the way we work to reduce energy use, increase packaging recyclability, and the end-of-life recovery of our products.”