Greening the Electronics Industry

Over 300 million computers and one billion cell phones are manufactured every year. Much of this electronics become obsolete or unwanted, often within 2-3 years of purchase. This global mountain of waste is expected to continue growing 8% per year, indefinitely (BCC Research). But instead of looking at this as a problem, entrepreneurs look upon this as an opportunity. The new paradigm of a circular economy, another name for a zero waste economy shifts the paradigm of waste – recasting waste streams as resource streams. A circular economy depends on:

  1.  cradle-to-cradle industrial product design at the beginning of the supply chain to ensure that products are designed to facilitate easy breakdown, disassembly and technical nutrient recovery at the end of the supply chain.
  2. efficient and low energy, low ecological footprint processes to require technical nutrients at the end of life of products

The recovery of resources from waste can create entire new industries in the new economy.

Green Chemistry

Green Chemistry is a new branch of chemistry that falls under cradle-to-cradle methodology, taking a proactive, preventive approach instead of the retroactive treatment approach now currently employed throughout the world.  It is the design of chemical products and processes that reduce or eliminate the use or generation of hazardous substances from industrial products. The development of safer chemicals and processes eliminates hazardous materials appearing in electronic materials altogether. It is a paradigm shift to design ecologically hazardous materials out of products.



12 Principles of Green Chemistry

Green Chemistry pioneers – Paul Anastas and John Warner – identified 12 Principles of Green Chemistry in 1998.

  1. Prevention
    It’s better to prevent waste than to treat or clean up waste afterwards.
  2. Atom Economy
    Design synthetic methods to maximize the incorporation of all materials used in the process into the final product.
  3. Less Hazardous Chemical Syntheses
    Design synthetic methods to use and generate substances that minimize toxicity to human health and the environment.
  4. Designing Safer Chemicals
    Design chemical products to affect their desired function while minimizing their toxicity.
  5. Safer Solvents and Auxiliaries
    Minimize the use of auxiliary substances wherever possible make them innocuous when used.
  6. Design for Energy Efficiency
    Minimize the energy requirements of chemical processes and conduct synthetic methods at ambient temperature and pressure if possible.
  7. Use of Renewable Feedstocks
    Use renewable raw material or feedstock rather whenever practicable.
  8. Reduce Derivatives
    Minimize or avoid unnecessary derivatization if possible, which requires additional reagents and generate waste.
  9. Catalysis
    Catalytic reagents are superior to stoichiometric reagents.
  10. Design for Degradation
    Design chemical products so they break down into innocuous products that do not persist in the environment.
  11. Real-time Analysis for Pollution Prevention
    Develop analytical methodologies needed to allow for real-time, in-process monitoring and control prior to the formation of hazardous substances.
  12. Inherently Safer Chemistry for Accident Prevention Choose substances and the form of a substance used in a chemical process to minimize the potential for chemical accidents, including releases, explosions, and fires.

Some examples of Green Chemistry applications

  • Extract valuable chemicals from biomass that could form the initial processing step of many future biorefineries.
  • Wax products with numerous applications, can be extracted from crop and other by-products including wheat and barley straws, timber residues and grasses, using supercritical carbon dioxide – a green chemical technology that allows the production of products with no solvent residues
  • Extracted residues can be used in applications including construction as well as in bioprocessing
  • Low-temperature microwaves can also be used to pyrolyse biomass, allowing greater control over the heating process. The process results in significant energy savings and produces high quality oils, and oils and solids with useful chemical properties.
  • Combining continuous extraction with microwave irradiation, it is possible separate an aqueous phase leaving the oils cleaner, less acidic and with lower quantities of other contaminants such as alkali metals. The oils have significant potential as feedstocks for making chemical products as well as for blending into transport fuels.
  • Production of bio-chars with calorific values and physical properties that make them suitable for co-firing with coal in power-stations

(Source: Professor James Clark, Director of the University’s Green Chemistry Centre of Excellence, University of York)

  • Berkeley Center for Green Chemistry is partnering with the Biomimicry Institute to consider biologically inspired design alternatives as a starting place for the replacement of formaldehyde based resins, adhesives and preservatives which are used in textiles and beauty products.

Figure 1: Prezi Green Chemistry and E-waste presentations

Dr. Michael Heben from University of Toledo discusses the symbiotic relationship between renewable and green energy

Dr. Terry Collins of Carnegie Mellon University speaks on green chemistry

Paul Anastas, Assistant Administrator for EPA’s Office of Research and Development, discusses scientific advances in the design of intrinsically safe and environmentally benign products and the resulting paradigm shift in understanding the relationship between people, chemicals, and the environment.

McGill is playing a leading role worldwide in developing processes and products to reduce or eliminate hazardous substances and manufacturing waste

Great Lakes Green Chemistry Network (GLGCN) ( and the Michigan Green Chemistry Clearinghouse (MGCC) ( host a webinar on green chemistry. February 27, 2013
The Heinz Center’s second Horizons@Heinz event at the University Club in Washington D.C. on the topic of green chemistry — the design of safe chemical products that can eliminate the use of harmful substances in manufacturing processes — to reduce the impacts of toxic chemicals on human and environmental health.

Green Chemistry References


The e-stewards is a new certification that was created by the international Basel Action Network to deal with the growing problem of unscrupulous recycling companies that claim to recycle responsibly when they are, in fact shipping e-waste to China and Africa where impoverished people are being affected with the worst toxic pollution health issues steming from improper mining of materials from e-waste.

Figure 2: E-Stewards US Map

Repairing and reusing products is the most efficient technique when it is possible.

  •  Reuse Creates More Jobs
  • Compared to disposal, computer reuse creates 296 more jobs per for every 10,000 tons of material disposed each year (Institute For Local Self Reliance)

Figure 3: Dismantling of ICs from printed circuit boards (Source: E-waste volume I: Inventory Assessment Manual)

Figure 4: Dismantling and regunning of CRT from old monitors (Source: E-waste volume I: Inventory Assessment Manual)

Figure 5: Dismantling of Refrigerator and Segregation of Compressor and Cooling Box (Source: E-waste volume I: Inventory Assessment Manual)

E-waste Resource Recovery

The production of electric and electronic devices is a very resource‐intensive activity.The Electronic Takeback Coalition estimates that 81% of a desktop computer’s energy use is in MAKING the computer, not using it. When you add up the energy usage during the whole lifecycle of a computer with a 17 inch monitor, you find most is used during manufacturing, not using the computer.

  • In contrast with many home appliances, life cycle energy use of a computer is dominated by production (81%)
  • as opposed to operation (19%)
This infographic shows that integrated circuits embody most of the energy in electronic manufacturing. To manufacture one computer and monitor takes:
  • 240 kg / 530 pounds of fossil fuels,
  • 21.8 kg / 48 pounds of chemicals,
  • 1.5 tons of water
(Source: Eric Williams United Nations University, Environmental Science & Technology 38(22), 6166 ‐ 6174 (2004))

There is therefore, a very strong proposition to recover already mined metals than mining virgin metals. This provides economic incentives to find effective processes to recover precious metals from e-waste.

To estimate the size of the potential market, it is estimated that between 20 to 50 million tons of ewaste is generated annually.  A 2010 EPA report indicates that in the United States alone, 142,000 computers and over 416,000 mobile devices are discarded EVERY DAY and of this amount, only 600,000 tons or 17.7 % was recycled. The rest was sent to landfills or incinerators.

Volume of Precious Metals in Cellphones

  • A ton of used mobile phones = approximately 6,000 handsets
  • This is a tiny fraction of today’s 1 billion annual production
  • One ton contains approximately
    • 3.5 kilograms of silver,
    • 340 grams of gold,
    • 140 grams of palladium,
    • 130 kg of copper (StEP)
  • The average mobile phone battery contains another 3.5 grams of copper
  • Combined value: over US $15,000 at 2009 commodity prices (United Nations University (2009, September 17)

Therefore, a ton of used cell phones (6000 phones) yields $15,000 in precious metals (2009 prices)

Energy Saved from Using Recycled Metals

Recycling metals from e‐waste uses a fraction of the energy needed to mine new metals

  • Recovering 10 kilograms of aluminum via recycling uses no more than 10% of the energy required for primary production
  • Prevents the creation of:
    • 13 kilograms of bauxite residue,
    • 20 kilograms of CO2,
    • 0.11 kilograms of sulphur dioxide emissions,
    • many other emissions and impacts

(Source: Electronic Takeback Coalition)

Table 1: Metals used in electronics using 2007 averaged prices (Source: Recycling from e-waste to resources, UNEP 2009)


Figure 6: Metals found in a typical cellphone (Source: Umicore 2008)

Figure 7: Impact of phones and PCs on metals demand, based on global sales 2007 (Source: Umicore 2008)

 Figure 8: CO2 emissions of primary metal production (Source: EcoInvent  2.0 database)


Figure 9: Umicore e-waste integrated smelting and refining recovery process (Umicore)