Fighting e-Waste with New Greener Materials for Interconnects

By Amy Goetzman | June 18, 2024

New processes and products are leading the way as the connector industry looks for solutions to the problem of electronics waste.

Electronic waste (e-waste) is the world’s fastest growing solid waste stream and its harms include the introduction of as many as 1,000 different chemical substances into the environment, including microplastics, neurotoxins, and airborne particulate materials. The electronics industry is beginning to address its role in this problem by utilizing fewer harmful materials in the production of components and considering new end-of-life practices for electronics.

At this year’s ACHEMA conference, held in Frankfurt June 10-14, the global forum for the chemical engineering, process engineering, and biotechnology industries focused on new materials, systems, and processes aimed at increasing sustainability. Under the theme Inspiring Sustainable Connections, exhibitors shared ideas on topics including fossil-free processes, bio-based materials, water management, and closing material cycles from design to use and reuse, and recovery and recyclability. Interconnect companies in attendance included Phoenix Contact, Stäubli, and WAGO.

Phoenix Contact presented a range of approaches for achieving a more resource-efficient and sustainable process industry. Prioritizing solutions to the e-waste problem, the company has introduced new bio-based plastics for select interconnect product ranges, including PCB terminal blocks, connectors, and electronics housings. These new materials help reduce carbon footprints and prevent dangerous chemicals from entering the air and groundwater in manufacturing and recycling areas. “This allows us to improve the carbon footprint of our products without compromising on product requirements,” says Timur Uzunlar, manager for PCB terminal blocks at Phoenix Contact. “We are not just talking about sustainability; we are actively working on it.”

The MKDS 3 PCB terminal block uses plastics that are manufactured using renewable raw materials. This results in products that emit significantly less carbon dioxide into the environment.

Phoenix is focusing on materials in its first range of products that include bio-based plastics or include plastic waste content. The MKDS 3 PCB terminal block, the RJ45 connector (version 6), and ICS 20 series electronics housings are made from thermoplastics based on the castor oil plant. These materials meet the same technical requirements and approvals as conventionally produced plastics but have less impact on the environment, as the oil of the castor bean plant has a lower carbon footprint and does not conflict with the cultivation of food or animal feed. Also, castor beans can grow in dry areas that are not suitable for other types of agriculture and have no need for fertilization or irrigation.

SCHURTER has also integrated bioplastics into its product lines, including appliance couplers and inlets. With a goal of reducing the company’s carbon footprint by 50% by 2025, the company has launched its Green Line series of components, which integrate castor oil. Castor oil is less energy-intensive and harmful than petroleum. The plant-based plastic from castor beans is not biodegradable, but its disposal is more sustainable compared to fossil plastic and it can be recycled and reused. Also, the castor bean plant absorbs CO₂ from the atmosphere during cultivation and binds it.

SCHURTER Product Manager Marcel Mühlemann said, “In my view, it is a good sign that we need not that much explanation any longer why sustainability should be on top of everybody’s minds. The reason is relatively simple: we need to be more reasonable with our resources and take more care of our environment. Because, at the end of the day, there is just one blue marble that we all live on.”

While castor oil is currently slightly more expensive than petroleum-based plastics, rising demand is bringing prices down, and SCHURTER is working to make these products as economical as possible and not pass costs to customers. The goal is to introduce sustainability across more product lines. The company is investing in materials research beyond castor oil, and considering other materials. Only raw material must be used, as integrating recycled materials introduces unpredictability and conflicts with current standards. “Those standards prevent, to some extent, the use of recycled materials today. Because the requirements of the standards are at such high level, it needs this kind of virgin raw material,” Mühlemann said. However, companies can consider sustainability in other areas of production. “There are many more areas where you can reduce your footprint. For instance, there are recyclable materials that can be used when it comes to the packaging of the products.”

Würth Elektronik’s Logistics is doing just that. In its shipping operations, the company now uses plastic-free padded envelopes, parchment bags instead of plastic bags, paper-based parcel tape, and recycled paper for its filler material. Industry is responsible for about half of all packing and shipping waste, so the company is focusing on new ways to become more sustainable at this supply chain point. The reduction of packaging waste is just one area of focus for the company, which is also engaging in materials research, copper recovery, and sustainable production processes.

Würth has developed packaging solutions that include up to 100% recycled plastics for machining tools. Even the labels are made entirely of recycled plastics and are applied with an environmentally safe adhesive. This packaging protects the product very well, while requiring very little material. It is reusable and resistant to oil, grease, and moisture. The use of these materials will save roughly 45 tons of new plastic every year, reducing CO2 emissions for this product group by 77%.

These companies have demonstrated that bringing sustainability into the electronics supply chain starts by rethinking materials, from those used in the products to those used in the packaging, with an eye to minimizing impact at the end of the use life.

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Amy Goetzman
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