Sustainable Electronics

Rethinking the e-waste problem using printed electronics

The global tech boom has led to a steep rise in e-waste that has become a major threat to our health and planet. Our industry partners are taking a significant first step in reducing their environmental impact by replacing conventional electronics with printed electronics. Moreover, TNO at Holst Centre keeps on innovating to find clever solutions to make electronics truly sustainable.

Across the world we produce no less than 54 million tonnes of e-waste – every year. Less than 20 per cent is recycled; the rest is dumped, traded, or recycled under inferior conditions. That’s why e-waste contributes greatly to all major environmental challenges; from global warming, to air and water pollution, and from plastic waste, to the scarcity of precious materials, and the global energy crisis. Fortunately, governments acknowledge the gravity of this problem and introduce stricter legalisation to force companies to take responsibility. With its European Green Deal and Circular Economy Action Plan, the European Commission wants to accelerate the transition to a circular economy.

Sustainable electronics
Rethinking electronics

As TNO at Holst Centre, we develop technologies to create sustainable electronics with minimal environmental impact. While many of the current efforts to reduce e-waste are merely partial solutions, we need to drastically rethink our electronics to make them fully sustainable. By replacing conventional electronics with printed electronics, clients are taking a huge first step in terms of sustainability.

When it comes to printed electronics, TNO at Holst Centre has an impressive track record based on more than 10 years of experience. On top of the general advantages of printed electronics (flexibility, freedom of design and integration, new user interfaces, easier to produce) this technology offers significant environmental benefits in terms of eco-design, reduced dependency of PCB’s, manufacturing, and a high potential to design towards recyclable or compostable electronics.

  • Weight & space reduction: with same functionalities, printed electronics is lighter and takes up less space, enabling products with reduced weight and lower energy consumption.

  • Less harmful material usage: printed electronics contains less scarce materials and impactful PCB’s than conventional electronics, which not only reduces costs, but also contributes to less material scarcity and less pollution.

  • Reduced dependency of PCB’s: Integrating a large part of the electronics of the PCBs in the printed electronics product, helps reducing the environmental footprint of the product. The product essentially becomes the PCB. When based on low-impact materials and making use of recycling processes and eco-designs, printed electronics significantly reduces the overall environmental footprint.

  • Closed-loop manufacturing: PET, PC, TPU, (PEN) are thermoplastics and thus recyclable on polymer and eventually on monomer level

  • Power efficiency: photonic sintering, printing, thermoplastic polymers and low T interconnects contribute to energy-efficient manufacturing

  • Renewable polymers: building blocks are increasingly bio-based, which further reduces the environmental impact

  • Additive production: printing results in efficient circuitry design without waste and even allows for printed electronic components

  • Free of hazardous metals/chemicals: unlike conventional electronic boards manufacturing, printed electronics predominantly uses silver and copper, which makes recycling easier as well

  • No incineration (or even landfill): materials are potentially recycled or re-used (circularly)

  • Compostable electronics: potential use of organic inks (carbon), substrates (paper, poly-sugars, sericin) result in fully compostable electronics

End-of-life of electronics: Circularity
Next level innovations

Our efforts are directed to all global environmental challenges; from plastic waste, to terrestrial pollution, material scarcity, and global warming. To increase printed electronics’ positive environmental impact even further, as an industry we need to set up recycling procedures, increase material recovery, and improve dismantling techniques. Furthermore, we should focus on using reversible interconnects, increase the use of bio-based building blocks and improve reliability.

Sustainable value creation

As TNO at Holst Centre we help clients with sustainable value creation by rethinking their design, manufacturing and recycling processes. We invite new partners to participate in our lifecycle assessments (LCA), end-of-life studies (EOL), and comparative cost calculations, to jointly address the e-waste problem and to make electronics truly sustainable.