Xinova innovator Julia Goldstein, PhD, author of Material Value: More Sustainable, Less Wasteful Manufacturing of Everything from Cell Phones to Cleaning Products, explains how leading companies invest in eco-innovation and meet Environmental Social Governance (ESG) standards to do good, add value, and gain competitive advantage.
The drive toward making electronics smaller, faster, and cheaper needn’t take a back seat to making them cleaner and greener. Investors, consumers, and top innovator talent are flocking to tech companies whose high environmental metrics are conferring a competitive advantage. Creative strategies in materials selection, reuse, and recycling can pave the way to better environmental and financial results.
The consumer electronics industry creates products that educate and entertain billions of people around the world. Historical drivers for innovation center around performance and cost, but those considerations are no longer enough. The future of the industry requires comprehensive corporate social responsibility (CSR) strategies that go beyond feel-good slogans and incremental changes.
Fortunately, the industry is waking up and publicly recognizing its contributions to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and pollution. The Consumer Technology Association (CTA) reported on industry-wide carbon tracking efforts for the first time in December 2019. The CTA report tracked data from 45 companies that publish such data. Since CTA represents over 2200 companies, there is still a long way to go, but it’s a good start.
Many large companies in the consumer electronics industry are already prioritizing efforts that reduce GHG emissions, resource use, or waste generation and save money. A 2019 report from EcoAct ranking the sustainability reporting performance of the Dow 30 includes five electronics companies among the top ten: Microsoft, Cisco Systems, Intel, Apple, and IBM. Microsoft powers its facilities with renewable energy and builds carbon neutral data centers. Apple is aggressively increasing the use of recycled materials in its products. The challenge is for all their suppliers and competitors to join in.
I have seen firsthand the need for a shift in priorities. When I gave a presentation on greening semiconductor manufacturing to a roomful of engineers and C-suite executives in October 2019, people came up to me afterward and said that I inspired them to consider the environmental impact of their work or add a sustainability page to their website.
It’s important to spread the message throughout the manufacturing supply chain. Companies large and small can learn how reducing waste and switching to environmentally friendly materials need not come at the expense of performance or profit. On the contrary, such efforts promote better employee engagement and retention and increase shareholder value.
Companies that issue comprehensive sustainability reports issued in accordance with the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) Standards must release extensive details about all aspects of their operations. More stringent reporting standards are improving transparency. Companies can no longer highlight outstanding performance in one area while neglecting to mention areas where they fall behind. There is some flexibility in how companies report, but every required item must be included.
A 2018 sustainability report from Texas Instruments (TI) illustrates a paradox. Because of overall growth in the consumer electronics industry, its global carbon footprint increases each year despite GHG emissions reductions. The TI report gives some impressive metrics: the energy used to make one computer chip decreased 35% from 2005 to 2018. Waste generation per chip dropped from 100 (arbitrary units) in 2005 to 51 in 2015 and 31 by 2018. But total GHG emissions and waste generation at TI increased from 2015 to 2018. How is this possible? The answer is simple: TI produced more chips.
Producing more chips or more devices each year is a sign of a healthy economy and a promise of financial benefit for shareholders. But how can the world sustain continued growth and reduce emissions and waste at the same time?
Innovations must reduce not only the environmental impact per computer chip, per liter of process chemicals, or per smartphone produced, but the total impact of the industry. Such innovations can tackle one or more of the following aspects: energy consumption, water usage and treatment, hazardous and nonhazardous waste generation, resource usage, and transportation.
Implementing creative strategies for materials selection, reuse, and recycling can address several aspects at once. By focusing on materials, companies can reduce GHG emissions and waste within operations at their facilities and throughout their supply chain. Looking at the big picture and re-evaluating all the materials that appear in a company’s products plus those used in manufacturing, packaging, and shipping will point out opportunities.
Dell Technologies has focused on innovation in materials. Dell’s 2018 Innovation award from the Responsible Business Alliance recognized the company’s commitment to source all of its packaging from sustainable materials by 2020. As of fall 2019, the company was 95% of the way toward the goal. Dell buys post-consumer recycled plastic and collects ocean-bound plastics from rivers, both of which I applaud. But their “pollution ink” wins the prize for creativity. The technology recovers carbon black powder from diesel soot. Pollution ink clears the air by reducing diesel pollution and produces a useful product: black ink for printing on cardboard packaging.
Electronics manufacturing generates vast quantities of waste, much of which can be eliminated or repurposed. Brewer Science, a company that supplies chemicals to the semiconductor industry, has boasted zero waste to landfill every year since 2015. Achieving that goal has required innovation. Brewer developed a fuel blending process that converts 65% of its hazardous waste into fuel that powers the company’s kilns. An onsite trash compactor converts nonhazardous waste to energy. The company also recycles everything it can on-site, from process solvents to cardboard boxes.
Hazardous waste is an especially important target. Replacing toxic chemicals with nontoxic ones should be an obvious way to clean up the manufacturing process. In reality, it presents a significant challenge. As I explain in Chapter 1 of Material Value, multiple obstacles stand in the way.
Hazardous compounds are chosen in spite of, not because of, their toxic properties. The barriers to discovering suitable replacements are both technical and economic. Companies that benefit financially can be reluctant to change their ways. It can take millions of dollars and years of research to come up with a suitable alternative, but it’s important to dedicate resources to doing so.
Sometimes, alternatives come with unintended drawbacks. It took the electronics industry around fifteen years to phase out tin-lead solders. The goal of removing the toxic element lead from circuit boards may have been well-intentioned, but the selected replacements—mixtures of tin, silver, and copper known as SAC alloys—came with their own set of problems.
Engineers knew how to make reliable solder joints from tin-lead, but when they switched to SAC alloys, reliability dropped dramatically. Years of research finally brought reliability up to acceptable levels. But SAC alloys melt at a higher temperature than tin-lead, meaning that ovens must be run at higher temperatures, increasing energy use and, therefore, GHG emissions.
When I started my PhD research in the early 1990s, policies that would eventually eliminate lead from solder in most electronic devices were gaining traction. I decided to research two lead-free alloys, tin-bismuth and tin-indium. Both of those alloys melt at a much lower temperature than tin-lead.
At the time, I didn’t think either of my alloys was likely to be incorporated into real devices, but for PhD research, that didn’t matter. Besides, my research was funded by a government agency that had shifted from applied to basic research. I couldn’t even use the word “solder” in my publications.
Ironically, the current trend toward low temperature solder in electronics is shifting toward tin-bismuth. Eliminating silver achieves two benefits: lower melting point and lower cost than SAC solders. Innovation doesn’t require inventing a brand-new material. It can involve a new application for something that has been around for decades. If the new application improves recycling and reuse of raw materials, that is even better.
The quality of items with recycled content depends on the types of recycled materials the items contain. Recycled printer paper tends to be both more expensive and rougher than paper made from virgin pulp. Most plastics lose quality every time they are recycled, limiting applications for recycled plastic.
When it comes to metals, however, recycled materials are identical to virgin ones. Electronic devices like smartphones and laptops contain around two dozen different metals. Gold is the most commonly recycled because of the high economic value, but e-waste processing can also recover aluminum, copper, silver, and multiple rare earth metals. If the price per ounce of metals recovered from e-waste can compete with mined metals, there is no reason to mine more metal to produce the next generation of electronic devices.
In reality, the situation isn’t so simple and requires several improvements: Higher e-waste collection rates, more efficient recovery of metals from devices, and streamlined distribution of the recovered metals. Fortunately, some companies are already working on it.
Closing the Loop in The Netherlands is addressing e-waste collection rates for mobile phones. The company collects scrap phones in Africa on behalf of corporate customers in Europe who are buying new phones for their employees. The European companies pay a fee per phone, similar to a fee on carbon emissions. Closing the Loop sends the African phones to responsible e-waste recyclers in Europe. The company also ships usable old phones to secondary markets in Africa.
Ronin8 in Canada has developed a process that recovers a much higher percentage of metals from electronics compared to traditional processes. Instead of grinding and incinerating circuit boards, the Ronin8 process grinds them under water and uses ultrasonic energy to separate the metals from the plastics. Both the metal and plastic waste streams are available for further processing and reuse.
Apple has committed to eventually using no mined metals to make iPhones. The company already uses 100% recycled aluminum in the MacBook Air and Mac Mini enclosures and has recently sourced recycled rare earth metals as well. While the specific source of rare earth metals is industrial scrap rather than e-waste, it is encouraging that Apple is moving in the right direction. Apple’s latest Environmental Responsibility Report shares more details about the company’s efforts.
Large electronics companies have financial resources at their disposal to invest in programs that reduce their environmental footprint, but they can’t do it alone. Even with programs that encourage their employees to come up with solutions, there is plenty of opportunity for collaboration.
Companies that supply components, materials, and services to the big players can participate as well. If they show social and environmental leadership, they can become preferred providers. As supplier codes of conduct become more rigorous, suppliers that don’t consider their resource use or GHG emissions risk getting shut out. At the very least, they will see pressure from their customers to make their operations more sustainable.
Manufacturers welcome partnerships that lead to creative sourcing of parts and materials or creative reuse of excess inventory. Research institutions, and even individual researchers, can propose technologies that larger business can license. There is a need for innovations that reduce water use, increase recycled content, improve wastewater treatment, or eliminate or reduce the need for hazardous chemicals.
Inspired by my corporate clients that are promoting their efforts to save water or remove toxic waste from their manufacturing processes, I wrote Material Value to further spread awareness throughout the manufacturing world. I’m encouraged by the momentum that I’ve seen building in the past few years, with more executives considering long-term revenues and realizing that environmental sustainability is a key component to the success of their companies.
I believe that the electronics industry can continue to prosper while reducing its total environmental impact. As companies throughout the supply chain commit to audacious environmental goals, they will attract employees who want to make a positive difference in the world. These engineers and business leaders will put in the work needed to implement the innovations in materials selection and waste processing that will be required to make electronics cleaner and greener.
Julia L F Goldstein has a Ph.D. and M.S. in Materials Science from UC Berkeley and Stanford, respectively. She started her career as a process development engineer in semiconductor packaging before migrating to journalism. She is the owner of JLFG Communications, producing white papers, articles, and other technical marketing content for companies manufacturing a wide variety of products. She blogs about materials and sustainability and is the author of Material Value: More Sustainable, Less Wasteful Manufacturing of Everything from Cell Phones to Cleaning Products, released in April 2019. Learn more at juliagoldsteinauthor.com.
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