Circuit Boards and Product Stewardship: Environmentally Friendly Tech

circuit boards

The problem of electronics waste, or “e-waste”, has grown steadily more serious, as all of our favorite electronic devices have become much cheaper and have achieved ever greater market penetration. These days, it seems like just about everybody has a smartphone, a tablet, a laptop, and a desktop computer. And not only is market penetration getting deeper, but the average useful life of electronics is also getting much shorter. Some of this shortening of the useful life is a testament to the great innovative success of the industry.

With brilliant new features available in new products practically every year, consumer demand for new devices is nearly unquenchable. Furthermore, there is not as robust of a secondary market for consumer electronics as there should be, so many still-serviceable products end up in a landfill. Secondly, with the increasing popularity of mobile devices, electronics are exposed to many more environmental challenges that shorten useful life, such as shock, moisture, and dust, among many others. All of these factors lead to an exploding e-waste stream into the landfill.

circuit boards

In the US in 2011, about 41.5 million tons of e-waste was generated. That figure is expected to rise to 93.5 million tons by the end of this year. Of those huge totals, 70-80% goes straight into the landfill without any recycling efforts at all. Recycling of e-waste materials involves several big economic challenges. The biggest impediment is the basic finances, balancing the market value of the recovered materials against the labor costs of retrieving them. To this day, the industry has not really been able to automate very much of the materials recovery, meaning that labor continues to be a major impediment.

With gradually rising labor costs and plummeting raw materials prices, the challenges to e-waste recycling look almost insurmountable for now. At least for the near-term, the situation is that whatever materials manufacturers put into electronics, the vast majority will end up in a landfill. For this reason, “product stewardship” has become more important than ever in the electronics industry. This means that the designers and manufacturers of equipment are taking on new obligations for the products they create throughout the “product lifecycle”, from design to manufacturing to sales and use all the way through to the end of the useful life of the product. The designers and manufacturers of circuit boards are doing their parts as well.

circuit boardsGetting the Lead Out

Acknowledging that an awful lot of what goes into consumer electronics is going to end up in a landfill, designers and manufacturers are doing everything they can to reduce or eliminate the use of lead their products.

Not only is the industry stepping up, but in many jurisdictions, the law now requires manufacturers to reduce or eliminate the use of lead. Most importantly, manufacturers are using “lead-free” techniques for board manufacturing and the placement of components. Secondly, the surfacing techniques are shifting from the traditional Hot Air Solder Leveling (HASL) to newer no-lead techniques like Electroless Nickel Immersion Gold.

The shift to no-lead techniques raises at least two key challenges for manufacturers. First, many of the no-lead techniques are significantly more expensive than traditional techniques. Second, the no-lead techniques often require much higher temperatures during manufacture, placing additional thermal stress on the boards, which can cause fracture and delamination. Regulators need to think through all of the challenges raised by shifting to no-lead manufacturing techniques – including the pricing challenges that manufacturers face in a brutally competitive industry.

circuit boardsBiodegradable Boards

Traditional circuit boards are made of fiberglass or polyimide substrates with metals on the surface such as gold, silver, palladium, tin, and copper. Unfortunately, these materials are either very slow to degrade in landfill conditions or else as they degrade, they form hazardous compounds that can leach into groundwater. Researchers are perfecting newer materials for the substrates and metal surfaces that are much more readily biodegradable and that degrade into inert compounds that will not raise threats to soil and groundwater.

One team at the University of Illinois has had some success using for the board material a compound made of sodium carboxymethylcellulose and for the micro or nanoparticle pastes made of magnesium, tungsten, and zinc. Of course, the more readily materials can biodegrade in the landfill, generally the less resistant to moisture they will be during the useful life of the device. Also, these materials are all more expensive than the traditional techniques.

The trend toward protecting landfills – and the soil and groundwater – through product stewardship in the PCB industry is a very positive development. However, until the technology can solve cost and durability challenges, regulators need to make sure that they are not imposing solutions on industry that are not practical from a real-world perspective.