According to the United Nations, 50 million tons of consumer electronics are thrown away every year. Discarded devices are the fastest-growing component of municipal waste. In addition to releasing toxic chemicals into the environment, this e-waste also adds tons of hard-to-recycle plastics to our landfills every year. But the tide is starting to turn. Savvy electronics companies are investing in sustainable manufacturing—and gaining kudos from their customers for doing so.
The increasing volume of e-waste has made headlines both domestically and abroad, influencing consumer preferences. Now more than ever, people are seeking electronic devices that are built with eco-friendly materials, have a low carbon footprint during their lifetime, and can be sustainably disposed of. Many cutting-edge manufacturers are responding to this consumer demand by adopting new materials and techniques.
“Many electronics companies are seeking to develop more eco-friendly products,” says Tony Lopez, Vice President of Manufacturing and Logistics Services at PRIDE Industries. “Fortunately, the technologies that make sustainable devices possible continue to drop in cost, making them an increasingly viable option for these manufacturers.”
Sustainable manufacturing is on the rise, driven by trends in both consumer preferences and government regulations. Because of these trends, companies that adopt green practices are finding that they can not only reduce their environmental footprint, but also save expensive resources, and secure a public relations advantage. Here are seven developments that electronics companies would be wise to keep in mind.
Sustainability in Manufacturing Requires Transparency
It used to be that companies could satisfy customer demands for sustainability by simply labeling their products “recyclable.” But as a Guardian article last year pointed out, today’s savvy customers—whether governments, businesses, or individual consumers—require proof, and will shift their purchasing dollars to companies that can assure them that their products are indeed made sustainably. Because of this, third-party certifying agencies are becoming more important. Some third-party organizations, like CDP and CSRHub, now rate most large companies, whether or not these companies submit information. Now more than ever, it’s important for manufacturers to implement sustainable lifecycle management of their products, and to share their green initiatives with rating agencies and the public.
Manufacturing Design with Sustainability in Mind
According to the European Commission, 80% of a product’s environmental impact is determined by its design. A product’s design determines the raw materials used, the amount of energy the product will consume over its lifecycle, and how easily the product can be recycled at the end of its life. The ability to easily recycle electronics is especially important, given the valuable resources contained in the typical electronics product, including glass, aluminum, and precious metals. More and more, consumers want to know that the products they use can be easily recycled, and products that are made with recycled materials are viewed favorably by these same consumers. This is why, for example, in 2022 Apple Computer boasted that 20% of the materials used in its products were recycled. Companies that design their products with sustainability goals in mind reap PR benefits—and, in some cases, tax breaks as well.
The Right to Repair Movement
Most Americans believe that if they buy something, they should be able to do whatever they want with it—including fix it. This belief, combined with a growing awareness of e-waste, is fueling today’s “Right to Repair” movement. And smart companies are responding to this growing consumer demand by taking a cue from the Maytag repairman; they’re touting their products’ reliability and ease-of-repair. Both Dell and HP have received kudos from consumers for making manuals and spare parts available, and even Apple and Microsoft are making the interiors of their products easier to access.
In the past, electronics manufacturers have sometimes acted like the point of sale was the end of the product lifecycle. But perhaps a better model is provided by car dealerships, where money is made on the initial sale, and subsequent revenue streams come from keeping the product in top shape.
Consumer-Friendly, Green Packaging
It’s official, consumers hate hard plastic packaging, so much so that there’s a name for this particular dislike. It’s called wrap rage, and it’s defined as the frustration one feels when trying to open a plastic clamshell or other hard plastic container. In 2006 and 2007, Consumer Reports even issued “Oyster Awards” to companies whose packaging was particularly hard to open. Although the award was meant to be a joke, it highlighted a serious problem: In 2006, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) estimated that injuries from plastic packaging resulted in approximately 6,000 emergency-room visits annually. These days, hard plastic packaging is disliked for other reasons as well—it isn’t biodegradable. For these reasons, the plastic clamshell is thankfully going away, increasingly replaced by customer-pleasing, easy-to-recycle options like cardboard, molded pulp, and green cell foam.
Recycling Plastic from Electronic Devices
Another plastic associated with electronics comes from the products themselves. Unlike a soda bottle, which is made of a single polymer, most plastic used for electronic products is made of a complex polymer blend, which makes it notoriously difficult to recycle. That’s finally starting to change, thanks to researchers at the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center. The scientists there have discovered a nontoxic solvent that can recover polycarbonate, a group of thermoplastic polymers found in the plastic components of many electronic devices. The hope is that once the technology becomes more widespread, recycling a phone case will be as easy as recycling a soda can.
Recovering Precious Metals
Electronics are made using a host of precious and semi-precious metals, including gold, silver, copper, and palladium. And when these devices end up in landfills, a wealth of raw materials is lost. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, one metric ton of circuit boards can contain 40 to 800 times the amount of gold and 30 to 40 times the amount of copper mined from one metric ton of ore in the U.S., which means some landfills have higher concentrations of precious metals than typical mining facilities. Traditionally, extracting gold and other metals from electronics was a laborious process. But recently, engineers at Rice University showed that precious metals and rare earth minerals could be recovered by grinding up electronics and flash-heating them with a zap of electricity. This process makes recovering precious metals from e-waste easier and less expensive, which could cut down on new mining operations, as well as open new revenue streams for recyclers.
According to a recent article in electronicsforu.com, global electricity demand is projected to increase by 30 percent in the decade ending in 2030. Many experts argue that this level of consumption is not sustainable. Fortunately, new developments in electronics should help mitigate the rise in energy consumption. One of these innovations is the use of silicon carbide and gallium nitride instead of traditional silicon for semiconductors. This “wide bandgap” technology reduces heat and power dissipation, increasing the energy efficiency of a broad range of devices. And the innovations keep coming. A new material being tested by researchers at MIT, cubic boron arsenide, conducts thermal energy nearly ten times more efficiently than silicon. New materials like these won’t just save consumers money, they’ll also shrink the carbon footprint of many electronic products. That’s good for the consumer, and good for the planet.
Sustainable Electronics Manufacturing
The days of designing electronics products without considering sustainability are gone. Today’s manufacturers know that to attract consumers and, increasingly, conform with environmental regulations, they must design products that consume less energy, use fewer chemicals in construction, and recycle more easily. Fortunately, researchers are rising to the challenge, discovering new ways to reduce the carbon footprint of electronics throughout the entire product lifecycle. The future of electronics looks bright—and energy efficient.