THE WEEE DIRECTIVE IS INSUFFICIENT – AN INSIGHT INTO ELECTRONICS RECYCLING PRACTICES

Ewaste is one of the fastest growing waste streams in the world. When electrical products and electronic equipment reach the end of their usable life they will often be sent to landfill, where they are expected to rot away and be forgotten.

The underlying issue is that most electronic circuit board assemblies are built with glass reinforced epoxy laminates (FR4) which cannot be recycled! The lack of recyclability and reuse means this ewaste goes to landfill, but it will never decompose, resulting in an environmental catastrophe that will last generations.

To combat ewaste, in 2012 the European Union introduced the Waste Electricals and Electronic Equipment Directive (WEEE), “This directive lays down measures to protect the environment and human health by preventing or reducing the adverse impacts of the generation and management of waste from electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) and by reducing overall impacts of resource use and improving the efficiency”.

Many believe that this is the end of the story in the expectation that all of their waste electronics have been recycled.

This sadly is not correct. Whilst most materials in consumer electronics can be recycled and reused in new products, such as the non-electronic outer casings and mechanical parts, the electronic components, and printed circuit boards (PCBs) cannot. With PCBs it is not practical or economical to remove the components meaning these remain and are shredded, burned, or sent to landfill along with the board.

The reason behind this lack of recycling in electronics is simple. Many manufacturers feel that the materials sent to landfill are just an unfortunate by-product of the electronics industry, one which is unavoidable when electronics reach end of useful life. This does not have to be the case as the technology to recycle electronic components has existed for 15 years, it is only a recent cultural shift that has seen sustainability rise up on both manufacturers and customers agendas.

In2tec Ltd., a UK headquartered, sustainable electronics design, development and manufacturing company has the answers to the current WEEE issues.

In2tec’s patented technology provides fully recyclable integrated electronics. ReUSE® uses a fully ’unzippable’ suite of materials that allows electronic and mechanical components to be placed and removed from a sustainable substrate, such as PET, bioplastics, or nano-polymers. ReCYCLE™ is the ultra-low energy closed loop process delivering clean, undamaged components ready for reuse in second life applications.

“We’ve been working on this technology for over 15 years. It’s disappointing that manufacturers still prefer to use conventional PCBA’s when a more sustainable version is available,” says Emma Armstrong, Sustainable Electronics Ambassador at In2tec Ltd.

“The planet has reached a point where every process humans enact must be as sustainable as possible. The electronics industry though is slow to react and accept its responsibilities to the younger generations who will have to live with the consequences of our actions.”

“Whilst the WEEE Directive is a good idea, the targets set are insufficient. It addresses only part of the environmental problem. What’s needed is technology to reduce the electronics going to landfill to zero, which is what our patented In2tec technology does. Not only that, but the increasing usage of second life components will also help to reduce the mining of rapidly depleting resources and the global chip shortage by ensuring there are more second life parts available to use.”

In2tec’s sustainable electronics allow full end-of-life disassembly, reuse, and recyclability. Using mechanical force and hot water as a catalyst, the ultra-low energy unzipping process provides opportunity for the full supply chain to gain value from end-of-life electronics. Not only can the circuit boards be recycled, and the electronic components removed, cleaned, and reused in the manufacturing process, but it makes in-line repair very simple for OEM’s when needing to replace a component and extend the useful life of an otherwise wasted PCB assembly. Both reducing the amount sent to landfill to zero, and truly fulfilling the WEEE Directive.