Maintaining sustainability in the growing electronics market

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Consumers have been caught up in a frenzy of rapid turnover of electronic gadgets. In a culture of enhanced social connectivity, fancier electronic models are quickly replacing outdated ones, thus adding on to the e-waste stream, which is becoming an environmental burden. Meanwhile, sustainability policies and organic electronics breakthroughs are offering promising solutions, says Angelica Buan in this report.

Electronic devices are a significant progress milestone of the 21st century. Almost every aspect of our lives, from home living and healthcare to communications and transportation, is wired to electronics. As advancements in electronics encroach into the other aspects of our lives, questions are being raised on how the manufacturing of electronics impacts the environment.

Sustainability issues of any industry are often challenging to address. With the electronics industry, issues relating to process and materials sourcing with respect to their impact on the environment are being probed.

Citing an online accessed paper from the Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth University in North Hampshire, US, there are several issues relating to endof- life of key electronic components like the microchips, printed circuit boards and computers.


For example, the paper explained, during manufacturing, the chemicals used may be detrimental to the environment and human-exposure. Similarly, the devices consume energy during use. At the end-of-life, electronic waste, or e-waste is generated. Moreover, complexity of dismantling can be a bane to recycling mechanisms.

The reality of e-waste piling up on landfills is a bane for each and every electrical and electronic equipment that is discarded.

Japan-headquartered United Nations University (UNU), a global think-tank and postgraduate teaching organisation, reveals in a report titled The Global E-waste Monitor 2014: Quantities, Flows and Resources that in 2014, the amount of global e-waste reached 41.8 million tonnes. Of this volume, 60% was from household equipment (kitchen, laundry and bathroom); while 7% was made up of personal information and communication technology (ICT) devices, including mobile phones, personal computers and printers.

Clogging the environment with e-waste’s toxic chemicals, including mercury, cadmium, chromium and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), is only a part of the peril.

UNU estimates that e-waste makes up a cost of US$52 billion of potentially reusable resources, with much of it not collected or recovered, or even treated/disposed of in an environmentally sound manner.

Imagine wasting away tonnes of iron, copper, gold, silver, aluminium, palladium and other reusable resources due to lack of proper recovery and recycling systems.

Asian countries turning into dumping grounds for e-waste

Asian countries are making significant headway in technology, in the increasing use of electronics, chocking up end-of-life devices at quantities outpacing population growth.

A January 2017-released UNU report has compiled e-waste growth in countries in East and Southeast Asia, comprising Cambodia, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam. In the light of the region’s affluence and rising incomes that re driving demand for new gadgets and appliances, e-waste has risen by nearly two-thirds or 63% to 12.3 million tonnes in five years between 2010-2015.

Industrialisation, growing populations and expanding middle classes in Asia are harbingers for the mounting e-waste. Rapidly advancing technology, which decreases the usage time of gadgets that become obsolete due to hardware incompatibility or software upgrades, as well as design trends, translates to rapid accumulation of e-waste.

China, together with the US, two of the world’s largest electronics producers, were reported by UNU to contribute to nearly one-third of the world’s total e-waste in 2014.

Between 2010-2015, China’s production of e-waste more than doubled, amounting to 6.7 million tonnes.

US-based Electronics Take Back Coalition (ETBC) hints that not all e-waste recyclers employ best practices, if ever they even recycle at all. In ETBC’s report titled How Exporting Toxic Electronic Waste from US causes Harm Here and Abroad, it said that approximately 50%-80% of the e-waste that is collected by US recyclers is not really recycled, but diverted to developing countries.

E-waste dumping has triggered bans in some countries but some e-waste destinations remain vulnerable with the absence of safety and environmental laws, as well as the necessary infrastructure.

Recyclers also pose as exporters or traders of e-wastes, making more money through selling outdated electronics devices to traders than actually recycling the waste, especially in the US. Furthermore, recycling undertaken in developing countries is cheaper, taking advantage of the lower labour cost.

Global environmental group Greenpeace points to China as a main hub in the e-waste disposal circuit. Local and overseas shipment of e-waste also goes to its largest e-waste site in Guiyu. Discarded electronics from developed countries are dismantled, crushed, burnt or melted – usually by hand and without any protective gear, by men, women, and children in workshops across the province. This dangerous activity results in the degradation of human health of the residents as well as creates environmental pollution in the area.

Hong Kong is also a dumping ground for e-waste coming from the US, according to Basel Action Network (BAN), which ran a two-year investigation to determine the destinations of the e-wastes.

The environmental group attached 200 GPS trackers on broken electronic items, consisting of printers, flatscreen monitors and cathode ray tube monitors in the US, and later noted that some were shipped to Hong GPS-trackers Kong; while the rest landed in local facilities and other locations offshore, including mainland China.

Aside from China, India is also reportedly witnessing a rise in e-waste production, mainly from domestic industrial sectors, households and manufacturers. According to the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (ASSOCHAM)- cKinetics study, Electronic Waste Management in India, the country is expected to generate 130 million tonnes of e-waste in 2018, from 93.5 million tonnes in 2016, at a CAGR of 17.6%.

India’s infrastructure deficiency and weak legislation framework on e-waste result in a low recycling rate of 1.5%. The remaining 95% of the un-recycled e-waste is handled by the informal sector and scrap dealers. Again, with the unsafe method of dismantling and disposing of the items, serious health ailments, among workers as young as ten years old, are evident.

Somehow, export of e-waste to developing countries is continuing to proliferate despite the existing policy to ban it under the United Nations Basel Convention, ratified in the EU and OECD in the 1990s.

In Asia, too, legal framework is in place to stop the entry of e-waste. Asian countries like Cambodia block the import of e-waste, while Vietnam refuses the import of second-hand electronics. Other countries have enforced respective national policies to safeguard against the dumping of e-waste on their land.

Novel clean-up solutions: pay per recycling; metals to medals

Policy-level mandates, while flawed, still remain to be a first line of defence against e-waste dumping. On the other hand, e-waste management tactics are also being carried out by consumers and producers.

Hong Kong is taking strides in increasing its recovery rates from e-waste through its Producer Responsibility Scheme (PRS), which is based on the “Polluter Pays” principle (which, the country adopted in 1995 to encourage public participation in reducing water pollution), and the element of “eco-responsibility”.

The Environmental Protection Department (EPD) of Hong Kong is developing the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Treatment and Recycling Facility (WEEETRF) at the EcoPark in Tuen Mun, expected to be commissioned by mid-2017. The facility will have the capability to handle 30,000 tonnes/year of e-waste, which will be converted into resources after a series of detoxification, dismantling and recycling processes, according to EPD. The agency has awarded ALBA Integrated Waste Solutions (ALBA-IWS) the contract to design, build and operate theWEEETRF.

Passed as law in March 2016, the PRS concept, according to the EPD of Hong Kong, “requires manufacturers, importers, wholesalers, retailers and consumers to share the responsibility for the collection, recycling, treatment and disposal of end-of-life products; to prevent/minimise the environmental impacts caused by such products at the postconsumer stage”.


Upon enforcement of PRS, manufacturers and importers of electronic products are required to register and are ultimately, obliged to shoulder the costs of recycling. The cost of recycling ranges from HK$15- HK$165 – with computers, printers and scanners costing the least and TV sets and refrigerators costing the most.

Japan, meanwhile, is eyeing a winning strategy to recoup valuable metals from e-waste.

The Tokyo Organising Committee of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games is planning to use metals collected from discarded or obsolete electronic devices in the production of the medals that will be awarded to athletes at the Games. The plan, announced in November last year, is part of the committee’s strategy to integrate sustainability in all aspects of the planning and staging of the sports event in 2020.


For this initiative, 40 kg of gold, 4,920 kg of silver, and 2,944 kg of bronze are needed to be recovered to produce 5,000 medals for both the Olympics and Paralympics games.

The country, which discards 650,000 tonnes/year of small electronics and home appliances, with less than 100,000 tonnes/year collected for recycling, still needs to ramp up its collection rates and, thus, is calling on the public to donate end-of-life devices for recycling. Partner companies have also been appointed to help in the collection.

Experts interface on greener electronics

Advancements in materials science offer more sustainable options to technologies that are at the risk of ending up in the waste stream at the end-of-life. Of fields in materials science, organic electronics offer a yet unsaturated playground for R&D and specialist manufacturers.

Treading on green technology, the organic electronics market is forecast to reach US$3.9 billion by 2018, according to the latest electronics market report of Transparency Market Research (TMR). The market covers organic lighting; organic radio frequency identification tags (RFID), organic photovoltaic, display, logic and memory, organic sensors, and printed batteries applications.

Currently, organic electronics are witnessing increasing adoption in biomedical applications. Nevertheless, the market is also expecting a boom, along with the fast growth of the consumer electronics industry. Further driving this potential growth is the current trend of electronic goods becoming cheaper, against the back of higher disposable incomes of consumers.

But because organic electronics is still a young segment, a lot of R&D is needed to make it on par with the time-tested non-organic counterparts.

The market for organic light emitting diodes (OLEDs) in mobile phones is also poised to score a value of more than US$10 million by 2018, the popularity driven by its low energy consumption, sharp display features and high-speed performance.

TMR says that large scale adoption of organic electronic devices is hampered by the low lifetime, the non-compatibility with conventional goods and the lack of robustness. Also factoring against its market growth is the complicated fabrication of materials, low electrical conductivity, low water resistance, high development cost, and the presence of competent technologies.

Meanwhile, a EUR5 million EU project, known as EXTMOS (EXTended Model of Organic Semiconductors), with eight academic partners, will help develop new organic semiconductor materials and additives that can be printed onto flexible film to create devices that are low cost, flexible, wearable and lightweight.

Organic materials are used in applications such as flexible displays, billboards and low energy diffuse lighting and wearables. They also have an exciting potential for the Internet of Things, where electronics are embedded in objects and transfer data without requiring human intervention.


The EXTMOS project, part of the EU Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme, aims to reduce the time and effort involved in manufacturing and testing new materials and, hence, lowers the production costs.

Project leader Professor Alison Walker, from the University of Bath’s Department of Physics, UK, explained that the project aims “to develop the tools to enhance decision making concerning which materials are synthesised for a given target device performance”, which could ease the challenge for “time-consuming developing and testing of materials because of the high number or permutations of structures open to organic chemists”.

Another research on organic semiconductors is aimed at making environmentally sustainable and commercially feasible devices. With funding from the National Science Foundation, the research team led by Assistant Professor Erin Ratcliff of the University of Arizona, US, is introducing improvements to carbon-based organic semiconductor materials, which are being used for digital displays and later on, in wearable devices and renewable technologies.

While organic semi-conductor materials are clearer, more flexible, cheaper and more environmentally friendly than their inorganic counterparts like silicone, they are also comparably less stable and more likely to degrade when used in a device, according to a study by the researchers titled In Operando Characterisation of Degradation Processes in Organic Semiconductor Materials.

Chemists at the US-based Washington State University also studied new materials with organic nanostructures to be utilised for inexpensive solar cells. Their work, recognised as an important milestone in developing organic semiconductors that are comparable in performance as metal and silicone-based electronics, was published in the Journal of Materials Chemistry in 2016.

At the Russian Lomonosov Moscow State University, researchers are able to pinpoint a molecule that may usher in the development of organic electronics. The team, working with German colleagues from the Institute of Polymer Research (Leibniz Institute) in Dresden, have found that a derivative of [3]-radialene, a (molecule) dopant can be used to create organic semiconductors, in particular the fabrication of OLEDs and new classes of organic solar cells. The results of the work were published in Advanced Materials.

Adding the dopant to a semiconducting polymer substantially increases its electrical conductivity, the team, led by Dmitry Ivanov, said. Use of dopants in semiconductors is not new, and has been done for over three decades now. For this study, the team designed a completely new type of low molecular weight dopant for the organic semiconductor. Ivanov explained that “it was important to choose a molecule that was not only suitable in its energy levels, but, importantly, the dopant must be well mixed with the polymer, so that in contact with the polymer it does not segregate in a separate phase, eventually crystallising and, in fact, losing contact with the polymer.”

A recent invention by the Graduate School of Engineering, University of Tokyo researchers is anticipated to make a splash in the wearables market. The ultrathin, ultraflexible protective film, less than two micro-metres thick, enables the production of ultrathin, ultraflexible, high performance wearable electronic displays and other devices. The film, which is made by layering inorganic (silicon oxynitrite) and organic (parylene) materials, blocks oxygen and water vapour in the air, and enabling lifetimes of devices to extend to several days. Moreover, an e-skin display can also be made, based on findings that transparent indium tin oxide (ITO) electrodes can be attached to an ultrathin substrate without damaging it.

Additionally, the new 3-mcm thick polymer lightemitting diodes (PLEDs) and organic photodetectors (OPDs), which are thin enough to be placed on the skin and flexible enough to contour with the movement of 3-mm-thick-PLED the body, can be created using the new protective layer and ITO electrodes. The new PLEDs feature reduced heat generation and power consumption, making it suitable for direct adherence to the body for medical applications, such as displays for blood oxygen concentration or pulse rate. Red and green PLEDs are also put together with a photodetector to demonstrate a blood oxygen sensor.

The above are just a few of the breakthroughs in organic electronics, with more developments to unfold over time, thus, allowing for more sustainable options to inorganic materials found in most electronic devices.

It is hoped that these new developments will reduce the build-up of e-waste and ultimately lessen the burden on the environment.


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