The environmental impact of electronics manufacturing

Posted on 9 Jun 2021 by Tim Brown

When it comes to recycling, electronics are not the first thing that springs to mind. However, as the fastest growing global waste stream, the environmental impact of electronics manufacturing is a critical issue that must be addressed.

According to the European Environment Agency (EEA), the amount of waste electrical and electronic equipment (widely known as WEEE or e-waste) in Europe alone is over 10 million tonnes per year. Of that approximately only 40% of is currently collected for recycling (Huisman et al., 2017). The figures are similar in the elsewhere in the world. Of the $206bn spent on consumer electronics in the US in 2012, only 29 percent of the resulting e-waste generated was recycled.

The list of common household electronics increases every year: smartphones, tablets, phablets, desktops, laptops, monitors, smart watches, speakers, VR headsets, LEDs, LCDs, Projectors, TVs… and the list goes on. Whether from breakdown, reduced performance, or just the availability of a newer model, people discard these electronics at the slightest inconvenience. But often it’s not just laziness or a lust for the future, either; the economics of gadgets encourages disposal. In some cases, for example, buying a new printer is cheaper than buying a set of new ink cartridges. And almost universally, it is impossible to fix a device for less than it costs to replace it.

And so, the generation of e-waste is expected to continue to increase and without improvements in collection systems and improved awareness among consumers we won’t see the necessary increase in recycling.

Would you like to discover how your company can improve its environmental practices and learn from the manufacturing leaders who have already implemented significant green improvements?

Then don’t miss the the virtual Sustainable Manufacturing Symposium, taking place online on 17 June, 2021. Find out more and register here:

Built-in obsolescence also to blame

As per the report of ENDS Europe agency, built-in obsolescence increased the proportions of all units sold to replace defective appliances from 3.5 percent in 2004 to 8.3 percent in 2012. The share of large household appliances that had to be replaced within the first five years grew from 7 percent of total replacements in 2004 to 13 percent in 2013. According to a 2014 Gallup poll, 89 percent of young adults (18 to 29) own smartphones; 41 percent of the older generation owned VCRs at the same age.

But as reported by the Atlantic, the idea of encouraging buyers to purchase new items by artificially reducing the lifespan of products is not new. In 1924, Phoebus, a cartel between Osram, Phillips, Tungsram, and General Electric, insured that light bulbs did not exceed an expected life span of 1,000 hours. This cartel was dissolved in 1939, when Eastern European manufacturers started producing low-cost bulbs.

Today, built-in obsolescence has broader and more serious consequence. The environmental impact of electronics manufacturing is a global ecological issue, which is not just limited to the creation of rubbish. It raises concerns about air pollution, water and soil contamination, privacy concerns, and even worker exploitation. Air can be polluted when e-waste is incinerated rather than recovered or when it is burned to retrieve the copper. If not properly managed, toxic chemicals e-waste can enter the soil and water supplies. On top of that, much of todays electronics contain data storage, which could be accessed after the item has been discarded and exploited by nefarious parties.

Some regions like the United States, United Kingdom and Europe stipulate how e-waste should be managed, but many goods continue to end up in landfill.  The rest were simply trashed. Who even remembers what they did with their first (or third, or fifth) iPhone?

Using ISO 14001 to reduce environmental impact of electronics manufacturing

For many contract electronics manufacturers, the increased focus on reducing the environmental impact of their operations means reviewing all stages of the production cycle – from procurement and storage to product development and distribution.

When it comes to assessing an organisation’s environmental impact, ISO14001: 2015 is probably the most widely regarded standard.

Although ISO 14001 is still technically viewed as a voluntary standard, for any company that’s looking to gain a competitive edge, it’s now considered to be a necessity. Indeed, some manufacturers such, as Ford and General Motors, require their suppliers to be ISO 14001 certified, and they have done since the early 2000’s.

At the heart of ISO 14001 certification is the creation of an environmental management system (or EMS) which is a set of policies, practices and records that helps a company determine how it interacts with, and impacts upon, the environment.

As explained by David Weekes, of JJS Manufacturing, the system follows “a fairly simple premise – plan, do, check, act.”

“You put a plan together, you implement the plan, you check that the plan has been carried out correctly and then you act by making any changes where they’re needed. No two companies are the same, so each EMS can be tailored to meet the specific needs of the company in line with their own business processes.”

As David says, manufacturers are discovering, efficiencies can be found in a myriad of areas: whether it’s reviewing the use of single-use plastics within the business, reducing the volume of product packaging, exploring more efficient energy conservation initiatives, introducing innovative storage solutions or implementing clean transportation schemes.

An EMS is evidence-based which means companies are able to benefit from actual, accurate data to aid their decision-making and track their progress. It can help companies to better manage cost control, whether through reducing energy usage, minimising waste or conserving materials. And it provides reassurance for customers and stakeholders that their contract electronics manufacturer takes environmental sustainability seriously.

Want to learn how to transform your business into becoming a sustainable manufacturing champion?

Join us on June 17, 2021 for our virtual Sustainable Manufacturing Symposium. Sustainable Manufacturing Symposium will be attended by a cross-section of professionals from every sector of the manufacturing industry who are responsible for leading sustainability within their organisations, coming together to share ideas and experience in an informal and interactive format. Register now here.