The electronics industry and sustainability: savior or curse?
2/3/2023 Green & Sustainable Engineering Story embedded world

The electronics industry and sustainability: savior or curse?

With the claim “embedded. responsible. sustainable.” the embedded world Exhibition&Conference deliberately sets out to examine topics that are discussed far beyond our industry. It’s time to ask what the embedded sector, and the electronics industry as a whole, can contribute to the issue of sustainability. Stuart Cording, electronics engineer and freelance technical writer, sheds light on some of the problems and possible solutions.

Production of circuit boards Printed circuit boards rely on subtractive manufacturing processes using corrosive chemicals and significant quantities of water

Tackling sustainability from design to end-of-life

Electronic devices are indispensable in everyday life

Take a quick look around you and consider, for a moment, what impact the removal of electronics would have on your life. Netflix and TikTok would be gone, for starters, as would the ability to cook, boil a kettle, and wash your clothes. It could be even more extreme for those heavily invested in the Internet of Things. Your front door would remain stubbornly locked and the lights off. The only remaining transport option is your bicycle, provided it’s not an e-bike.

For decades, electronics and semiconductors have been the savior of the world. We’d all be choking on polluted air in our cities if the automotive industry hadn’t switched to electronic engine management systems. And electric vehicles offer us the chance to eliminate the emission of those burnt fossil-fuel pollutants. Computer systems optimize logistics and manufacturing, reducing the price of essential goods and improving the quality of life for the masses. However, our industry is also the source of much pollution, from the creation of the components to their disposal. And working practices in some countries, from mining to production facilities, often endanger the lives and health of those who work there.

So, we should feel obliged to look closer at the various levers the electronics industry has at its fingertips. Here we review a selection of problem areas and possible solutions, but it is far from exhaustive.  

Tonnes of e-waste

Let’s start with the most obvious problem: electrical and electronic waste continues to grow annually. According to a UN report, we produce around 50 million tonnes of it each year, but only 20% is formally recycled. Unfortunately, much is shipped abroad, where the approach to recycling is often haphazard and damaging to the health of those undertaking the work. This is despite precious metals, such as gold, being present in higher quantities than in the raw ore from which it is extracted. The remaining e-waste often goes to landfills, polluting groundwater and the soil.

In Germany, according to the Federal Environment Agency, 90% of e-waste comes from households, with the rest disposed of by businesses.

So, how is this problem being addressed? To fulfill the European WEEE Directive (Waste from Electrical and Electronic Equipment), a “divided product responsibility” mechanism has been instituted. This splits the recycling obligation between the public sector and the electronic device’s manufacturer. Retailers are also involved, taking back old equipment and appliances.

However, there is still a long way to go to increase the quantity of e-waste we recycle. And these measures must be taken throughout the entire lifecycle of electrical appliances - from product design and manufacture to the end user - in order to increase recyclability and make more sustainable use of the resources used.
Ein Mann repariert Bauteile von elektronischen Geräten Repair cafés, run by volunteers, help visitors give a new lease of life to broken appliances and electronics. 


In addition to increasing the recycling rate, repairability is another important factor in achieving a more sustainable electrical industry. Electronic devices, especially smartphones, leverage clever design and manufacturing techniques to meet consumer trends and fashions. Smaller, lighter, and slimmer is the result. However, when your handset drops to the ground, the display records the event for posterity. Phones can be repaired, but the cost is often a significant proportion of the price of a new device. And smartphones are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to hard-to-repair electrical appliances.

To combat this, Repair Cafés have grown in popularity. Fixing a range of products, and not just electronics, such groups are made up of volunteers who will repair your appliances or show you how to do it yourself. For the sake of a new cable or connector, otherwise functional devices receive a new lease of life instead of landing in the trash.

Change is also perceptible in the maker space. OKdo launched the Raspberry Pi Renew program in 2021. UK owners of the much loved single board computer (SBC) can return it, where it is assessed and tested by the original manufacturer, Sony. Boards that can be repaired are resold, while the original owner receives a voucher towards a future purchase.
With the embedded world event update, you will be the first to know the most important information about the embedded community's meeting place. Get informed conveniently and free of charge via our e-mail update and receive all the latest news on the TicketShop, programme&Co.
A woman watches the printing process in a 3D printer Additive manufacturing techniques, like 3D printing, offers more efficient use of raw materials 

Subtractive vs. additive manufacturing  

The previous examples show measures at the end of the lifecycle of products. However, some options start with the manufacturing process.   

Additive manufacturing techniques also offer a way forward for the sustainable use of raw materials. For example, 3D printers and open-source design software allow us to design replacement plastic parts to repair broken items. But this approach isn’t just for consumers undertaking repairs; it’s also increasingly being evaluated in mass production. PCB (printed circuit board) manufacture has long been a subtractive process, taking copper-clad material and removing the metal from where it isn’t needed. This is wasteful and requires corrosive chemicals and significant quantities of water.   

Companies such as IO Tech are developing additive manufacturing alternatives, using just enough material for the task at hand. Their Continuous Laser Assisted Deposition technology applies conductive materials where they are needed onto foils and substrates and prints solder masks and paste.

Energy efficiency programs

While electrical appliances improve working conditions and operational efficiency, each requires energy to operate. Computers were a rarity, even in offices, in the 1980s. By the 2000s, most office-based employees had a PC and monitor along with access to a printer. To ensure that energy consumption, and not just performance, was the focus of manufacturers, governments and institutions around the world introduced energy efficiency programs.

Initiatives such as the US Energy Star program extend beyond computers and printers to servers, home appliances, and lighting. Since its inception in 1992, it is thought to have saved 5 trillion kilowatt-hours of electricity, achieving a 4 billion tonne reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Energy labels in the EU (Directive 92/75/EC) also guide consumers to efficient appliances, leading to massive improvements. In some categories, class A had to be extended to A+++, and an update in 2017 overhauled the classes, responding to continued advancements in appliance efficiency.

Safe delivery in minimal packaging

Electronic devices are fragile as well as expensive, so it is important to package them in a manner that ensures their safe passage into the consumer’s hands. But, over the years, the sheer quantity of single-use plastic used has become excessive. Companies like Apple have addressed this issue. A 2017 report shows how recycled fiber became the primary packaging material for the iPhone 7, displacing plastic in packaging. Industrial players, like the RS Group, also have packaging on their radar and include it as part of their sustainability commitment to net zero by 2030. Supplying everything from electronics components and tools to test equipment, they are on their way to ensuring 100% of their packaging is widely reusable, recyclable, or compostable and made with 50% recycled content.  

Sustainability in the electronics industry is a topic with a lot of potential

Like any industry, we can point to both the good and the questionable. Children with incurable diabetes are undoubtedly grateful for the simplicity of treatment an insulin pump affords – as are their parents. But, on the other hand, do we really need hundreds of cheap Bluetooth earbuds? And countless further examples can be quickly found.

We are clearly on the right track, but we still have a long way to go. Legislation is helping. Energy efficiency initiatives resulted in preventive measures and innovations that made appliances more efficient than the labelling allowed. All this shows that the market desires more sustainable practices in our industry, which is encouragement for entrepreneurs and start-ups developing transformative technologies like additive manufacturing. In the meantime, it is the responsibility of all of us, from individual consumers to global corporations, to rethink our purchasing decisions, actively seek out opportunities to reuse and recycle, and improve our use of the natural resources upon which we rely.