Tuesday, 2nd february 2021 | Circular economy
Marco Arezio - Consulente materie plastiche - Why Make the Production of Electronic Devices Sustainable?

In our E-WASTE article The Recycling of Survival, we tackled the problem of electronic waste under the aspect of illegal recycling in developing countries. In this article we would like to propose, with the help of Adrian Mendez Prieto, some solutions that can help us understand what steps the production system and the E-Waste system should take to increase recycling and erase the scourge of electronic waste smuggling.

Although almost 100% of electronic waste is considered recyclable, it has only a recycling rate between 10-15%, which is why it is seen as an emerging environmental problem, but also as a potential business opportunity.

Items that can be recovered from electronic waste to avoid environmental damage include metal, glass, ceramic and plastic components in a broader composition; the latter represents 20% of the global composition of E-Waste.

Due to the presence of additives such as flame retardants, of the brominated type (BFR), the recycling of plastics from E-Waste presents a greater processing complexity and reprocessing, compared to plastics used in other applications.

The processing of plastics containing additives (BFRs) considered persistent organic pollutants (POPs) is regulated by the Stockholm Convention (in force since 2004), which establishes that Recycling or final disposal of articles containing BFR or POP must be done properly and must not result in the recovery of BFR or POP for reuse. It also requires the separation and classification of plastic with BRF from other electronic waste.

Currently, most electrical and electronic equipment is not designed for recycling, much less to encourage a closed cycle of its waste. Developing appropriate eco-design would allow for environmental and economic benefits, so that the use of recycled plastics could reduce the environmental impact by more than 20%.

Phases of implementation of an environmental strategy that promotes the circularity of E-Waste

Circular economy as a strategy. The circular economy is a regenerative industrial system that from the beginning, with the design, considers the optimization and reduction of the use of materials and energy, as well as the minimization of waste and emissions.

This leads to trying to disconnect the use of raw materials and non-renewable resources to eliminate pollution and waste generation.

Control in the selection of plastics. Decisions about the use of materials and chemicals are made from the beginning of the life cycle, during the eco-design phase of the product. Circularity, therefore, will be promoted by reducing the wide variety of polymer types and eliminating complex additives by using recycled plastics in manufacturing.

For recyclers, one of the main obstacles to reprocessing electronic plastic waste is the large number of different polymers.

A potential solution to reduce this great variety could be to promote agreements between manufacturers on the types of plastics they use in their products, facilitating component identification and by encouraging investments in new recycling technologies.

Greater content and use of recycled materials. Undoubtedly, a big dilemma in the industry is the fact that recyclers do not process plastics if there is no market and manufacturers cannot buy recycled plastics because there is no supply.

Here the requirement of a circular symbiosis between the elements of the value chain of the plastics industry becomes concrete. That is, greater integration and communication between resin producers, manufacturers, collectors, recyclers, etc., which allow the management and processing of quality recycling that leads to obtaining competitive products.

Key points to improve the recycling of electronic plastic waste

Management of residual materials. The E-Waste flow is characterized by being particularly complex thanks to its composition, with a combination of high-value components (such as gold and palladium) and toxic materials (for example, mercury and brominated flame retardants).

Because of this, these materials hardly enter a controlled and official collection system, which favors their illegal handling and export to developing countries. development. This requires, as a matter of urgency, the implementation and application of the rules for the classification and labeling of such waste.

Traceability. One of the main weaknesses in managing and managing e-waste is the lack of a traceability system, as it is currently difficult to track the flow of materials into and out of the e-waste supply chain.

The full traceability of electronic waste management should allow an increase in the volume collected, reduce uncontrolled flows and ensure the proper treatment of materials based on their plastic composition and the content of hazardous substances.

Likewise, efficient traceability would allow the implementation of a more controlled collection infrastructure, which would result in the treatment and reprocessing of electrical and electronic waste of superior quality.

Technology. The current state of technology for handling such waste materials has proved inefficient due to the significant losses of clean plastic and the limits set by restrictive regulations for E-Waste.

For this reason, it has been shown that the recycling of waste plastic based on manual disassembly and separation has been more selective and precise, which implies less clean plastic leak. However, the use of low technology implies higher costs, making it less attractive from a technological and economic point of view.

Design considerations. It has been shown that quality recycled materials and the implementation of an eco-design that ensures the circularity of the system through the replacement of components or the recyclability of materials, allow tangible and sustainable benefits, which in turn allows to reduce the impact 20% product environment.

An interesting thing to highlight is that these environmental benefits must be conveyed to the market through sustainable product communications.

Consumer participation. The efficiency of collection systems in the Nordic countries based on the separation of electronic waste from the source has been demonstrated, based on the involvement and commitment of consumers to contribute to the system.

The limitations of manual dismantling of electronic waste during recycling demonstrate the urgency to reduce the types of plastics used in the production of electrical and electronic equipment and the need for identify plastic parts in terms of polymer type and brominated flame retardants.

The above shows that for the treatment of electronic waste it is necessary to incorporate an eco-design system that promotes a circular and more sustainable flow of materials, reducing their environmental impact.

Therefore, it is necessary to create appropriate protocols and regulations for the use of plastics in EEE applications or complex electronic components.

Considering the great diversity of application sectors and the wide range of plastic products, as well as the presence of additives such as brominated flame retardants, the efficient and reliable implementation of identification, collection, collection and separation systems, which enable quality recycling to reduce pollution, as well as the development of low environmental impact flame retardants.

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