Waste Not
British Companies Develop New Adhesive System That Makes Circuit Boards 90% Recyclable

Three British companies have created a circuit board that is 90 percent recyclable and reusable, with components that can be easily separated by soaking in hot water.

The three companies — National Physical Laboratory (NPL), In2Tec and Gwent Electronic Materials — have developed an adhesive that helps manufacturers take apart electronic circuit boards and reuse their components to make new components. The three firms, which have received funding from the UK government's Technology Strategy Board with a view to help industry conform to European electronic waste regulations, call the innovation ReUse — Reusable, Unzippable, Sustainable Electronics.

The companies set out to create a circuit assembly that can be simply disassembled when the appliance reaches end-of-life, which resulted in ReUse. In the presence of hot water, the ink and the adhesive soften so significantly that all the components on the circuit are easily scraped off and can be reused for new circuits. The process continues to be too labor-intensive to be practical in the mainstream, but the researchers are working to make it scalable for use by large electronics manufacturers.

Last year, a team of Hong Kong researchers found a way to use ground-up circuit boards from discarded cell phones, computers and other gadgets to absorb toxic heavy metals found in water. Each year, around 20 to 50 million tons of electronic waste is produced worldwide, most of which is incinerated or dumped into landfills. Burning the plastic/metal combo in printed circuit boards releases toxic compounds such as dioxins and furans. In landfills, the metals on the circuit boards can contaminate groundwater.

In 2012, the US Environmental Protection Agency launched an e-waste initiative with the support of several global brands that agreed to increase collection rates of used electronics and send 100 percent of the devices to third-party certified refurbishers and recyclers. Best Buy, LG Electronics, Panasonic, Samsung, Sharp, Sprint and Staples were among the companies joining the Sustainable Materials Management (SMM) Electronics Challenge, which aims to provide a transparent and measurable way for electronics companies to commit to environmentally protective practices for the refurbishment and recycling of used electronics, and publicly show progress toward recycling goals.

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