Circularity: Rebuilding the Electronics Industry around Reuse, Refurbish & Recycle

Francis Mullany, iNEMI Director of Roadmapping, reports on iNEMI's Workshop on Roadmapping Technology for Electronics Circularity held in conjunction with the 2023 Going Green — CARE INNOVATION conference in Vienna May 8. 

by Francis Mullany, iNEMI Director of Roadmapping

In May, I ran a workshop with Carol Handwerker (University of Purdue and a co-chair of the Sustainable Electronics topic in the iNEMI Roadmap) just prior to CARE INNOVATION in Vienna, a major conference on electronics and the environment.  The workshop focused on the circular economy and how its concepts of reuse, refurbish and recycle can minimize the environmental footprint of electronics, across a product's full lifecycle.  

The workshop featured excellent presentations from Eric Bauer (Bell Labs Fellow, Nokia) and Nirav Patel (CEO and founder of Framework). We also summarized the iNEMI Roadmap's work on circularity, asking participants for their feedback.  
Subsequent discussions and brainstorming on future trends and required industry-wide actions had three major themes running through them:
  • Consumer culture will be critical to the transition to more sustainable design, manufacture and use of electronics.  After all, the most totemic piece of personal electronics — the smartphone — is frequently replaced due to perceived obsolescence and, unfortunately, most of its carbon footprint lies in its manufacture, not use. Various ideas were explored to support and encourage end users to change their purchasing behaviors. Generally, there was an optimism that such a transition in mindset would be made over time, so much so that this culture shift will ultimately feed back into the corporate leadership of the industry, which is today very constrained by the need to maximize unit sales of electronics equipment.
  • That brings me to the second theme, namely the gradual emergence of new market models for electronics. In the medium term, well-defined refurbishment and recycling channels will emerge. Building on these channels, distributed, trusted markets for used electronics infrastructure equipment will provide an environmentally sustainable basis for the deployment of electronics infrastructure of the future. Ultimately, we are likely to see the emergence of an electronics hardware-as-a-service type of model. Long-term, could this also be the future for consumer electronics, in the same way that car sharing is being explored in the automotive industry?
  • We, as an industry, still need to do more by way of alignment around metrics to help drive the above changes. The lack of common nomenclature and definitions for basic measures such as LCAs (lifecycle assessments) is holding the industry back. How do you select the best component supplier on sustainability grounds if their means of assessing carbon footprint greatly differ from those of their competitors?

Much to think about here.

The ideas of reuse and refurbishment also apply to roadmapping workshops. Using the initial roadmap content from the iNEMI Sustainable Electronics roadmap team really provided the means to turbocharge the workshop participants. We've run a number of iNEMI roadmap workshops in the last year, but this one, building on existing content, was by far the most productive. Many thanks to the participants for their enthusiastic engagement and insights. The results for this topic and others such as PCB, Board Assembly and Smart Manufacturing, along with additional content on 5G materials from 5G/6G MAESTRO, will be published in the coming months. Please keep an eye on information about the iNEMI Roadmap for future updates.

Workshop report and presentations (available to iNEMI members only; requires log-in).