Quest for sustainable electronics

Picture of John Denslinger
John Denslinger is a former executive VP Murata, president SyChip Wireless, and president/CEO ECIA, the industry’s trade association. His career spans 40 years in electronics

As consumers escalate environmental, social and governance expectations for publicly traded companies, John Denslinger argues there is only one downside: failure to act.

ESG, carbon neutral, zero emissions, e-waste, sustainability and similar environmental stewardship labels are more than just talking points in company boardrooms and investment communities. Maybe it was the pandemic that elevated consciousness and the social value of safeguarding the health/safety of employees, workplace, consumer and environment. To be that socially responsible is not a small undertaking. It requires unconditional resource allocation and perhaps a total revamp of business. One only needs to look at the epic investment by our industry in more eco-friendly products, processes, material procurements and end-of-life considerations as evidence that being sustainable matters. It’s truly a seismic shift in management priority.

While the pandemic may have opened eyes, it wasn’t the only contributor to a social awakening. In 2013, CEA reported the average household made use of 28 electronic products in everyday life. Since then, advances in digitalization, connectivity, fitness, robotics, drones, VR, AI, EV, and smart home added to that household list: and that just typifies the point. Manufacturers constantly promote and condition consumers to continually buy the latest technology. Unfortunately, what’s good for the economy tends to be an undesirable pathway to early obsolescence. A 2018 BCC Research paper identified global electrical/electronic waste at 6.5 per cent CAGR but noted recycling was not keeping pace. EPA’s most recent data reports domestic recycling at 30 per cent. Europe is doing better per EEA reports at 40 per cent. Assuming global electronics consumption doubles by 2050 as forecasted, pre-emptive measures are needed now. Introducing more sustainable electronics could be that game changer.

So, what is sustainable electronics? A description search offers a few key words: absent toxic chemicals, reduced carbon footprint, recyclable. Sustainability starts with raw materials, product design, manufacturing techniques, recovery methods and ends with environmental impact considerations. Most companies utilize ISO14000/14001 for structure and planning. This guidance has been available for some time providing the necessary environmental management system with standards to measure and drive improvement. 

Launching a sustainability initiative but question where to start? One might do well talking with companies that already: 

  Designed and implemented comprehensive programs

  Measured all elements in detail

  Published results against goals

  Showed total transparency throughout 

These are the real environmental leaders and each offers valuable insight into sustainable electronics. My former employer, Murata Manufacturing Co has one of the most developed initiatives I’ve researched, a worthy standard for the industry. Check it out by clicking at the top of their global website: on Corporate Social Responsibility for a complete mapping of ESG initiatives. Remarkable work.

There is plenty of upside to sustainable electronics. The spawning of renewable technologies will be amazing: bio-based materials; biodegradable components; additive manufacturing; recyclable substrates; textile and graphene integrated electronics; cellulose sensors; sustainable batteries; bio-batteries based on printed enzymes; and much more. 

If there is one downside, it would be failure to act. Consumers have escalated ESG expectations for publicly traded companies and there is no going back. That pressure is rippling across the industry and down supply chains. Before long, corporate policy will dictate procurement selection based on supplier demonstrated ESG achievement. So, it’s not too early to begin the quest for sustainability.