Circular economy in the electronics industry

Electronics in Europe are to be produced more sustainably while also ensuring greater sustainability. A new EU project is examining the “green” potential of technologies along the entire value chain.

Electronics is one of the most important technologies for digitalization. However, despite its huge importance for the economy and society, one thing cannot be ignored: In many cases, it is not sustainable enough. There are many different reasons for this.

For example, manufacturing electronic devices consumes a wide variety of raw materials such as metals, plastics and rare earths, the extraction of which is often associated with environmental destruction and poor working conditions. In addition, the chemicals used endanger the environment and health. In contrast, energy-related CO2 emissions are generated in both the production and operation of electronic devices.

In addition, the constant technological progress and the short lifespan of modern appliances lead to enormous quantities of electronic waste—up to 57 million tons per year. Only 20 percent is recycled. The rest ends up in landfill or is disposed of incorrectly.

Sustainability and circular economy in the electronics industry

“Green” is therefore also an urgent requirement for the electronics industry. And not just in relation to our own production conditions. The development of environmentally friendly technologies remains just as important. The spectrum therefore ranges from reducing one’s own energy consumption during production to operating the electronic devices produced with little power. Circular principles should also ensure a smarter and more efficient use of resources.

However, the environment isn’t the only thing that would benefit from a sustainable electronics industry. If companies optimize their own energy efficiency and reduce their consumption of resources, they save costs. At the same time, they improve their image and are able to meet the growing demand for environmentally friendly products and services. Products without added sustainability value are facing hard times.

Entering a sustainable future with 6R

A sustainable electronics industry is supported by governments worldwide. For example, the European Union recently introduced EECONE (European ECOsystem for greeN Electronics), a wide-ranging research project that aims to develop new technologies and methods along the entire product life cycle.

EECONE is guided by the 6R concept (Reduce, Reliability, Repair, Reuse, Refurbish, Recycle). Electronics should use less material and work reliably for longer, while at the same time being easier to repair, reuse, refurbish and recycle. Under the leadership of Infineon, 49 partners from all over Europe are working to implement it.

Bosch, for example, is dedicated to reducing electronic waste in vehicle control units by developing environmentally friendly PCBs (Printed Circuit Boards). AT&S (AUT) has also committed itself to “green” printed circuit boards. Substrates and printed circuit boards should use resources in a way that is as environmentally friendly as possible, thereby minimizing electronic waste. Leonardo (IT) is researching processes for restoring electronic circuits and components. And Swiss Vault (CH) wants to ensure that sustainable methods meet the highest standards for information protection and reliability.

Other projects include IoT devices that are self-sufficient in terms of energy and eco-materials that facilitate the recycling of lithium-ion batteries. Others aim to extend the service life of electronics through the use of artificial intelligence, or to develop new tools for more sustainable electronics design.

With a project volume of €35 million, EECONE is planned for a period of three years.