Large-Area Electronics and the Circular economy – A Call to Action

Stop trashing my ocean by Ingrid Taylar - CC BY-NC 2.0

Plastic is choking our oceans.  Sir David Attenborough told us during Blue Planet 2 that “we dump eight million tonnes of plastic into the sea every year”[1]. It’s killing and harming marine life.

Following the release of the documentary series, Blue Planet 2 by the BBC in 2018, there has been a massive shift of public awareness regarding the use and disposal of plastic and the impact of plastic objects and microplastics in the oceans.  Fixing the problem of plastic waste is not simple, however.  Whilst there are steps we can all take to minimise waste, some are seeing the roots of the issue as being in the way the economy is currently structured in a “make, use, dispose” model, rather than a circular model which aims to design out waste, keep products and materials in use, and regenerate natural systems.

The Centre recognised that the deployment of large-area electronics on new substrates such as plastics, paper and glass presented both a challenge and an opportunity at end-of-life.  Could the presence of electronics on plastic affect recyclability, for example?  Equally, could the use of very low-cost flexible smart labels actually provide wirelessly readable end-of-life information on how to disassemble products and subassemblies and even material composites to facilitate the circular economy?

To address the challenge and to explore the opportunity, the Centre broke new ground by deciding to use the innoLAE  2019 conference as an opportunity to raise this topic amongst the large international audience of academics and industry representatives in attendance - to inform, educate and provide a forum for discussion.

“InnoLAE was likely the first major conference in our industry, in which sustainability and the circular economy were treated as central elements.” Martin Hirschmann (2019) [2]

Keynote speaker Marco Meloni, from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, set the scene in a plenary presentation. His specialist insights introduced the circular economy concept alongside examples of companies who have incorporated circular economy principles into their business models. The challenges to applying these principles to the field of LAE sparked many interesting break-out conversations, and the Centre was particularly encouraged by spontaneous feedback during the conference indicating that delegates valued the visibility given to the topic.

This was followed by a workshop involving experts from Environmental Solutions Provider, Veolia, low-cost smart tag provider (PragmatIC), academia (EPFL) and an international industry association (OE-A) who have been active in the area of sustainability for organic and hybrid electronics.  Through an open Q&A forum with the speaker panel, the speakers and the audience discussed questions such as:

To what extent will LAE add to end-of-life recycling challenges?”

“How could the industry embrace the circular economy during product design and development”

“Could LAE be part of the solution, enabling the circular economy or end-of-life management more broadly?”

As this topic is still in its infancy within the field of LAE, our Centre is considering next steps following this first workshop and we’d like to hear your thoughts, particularly if:

  • Your organisation has already taken steps to move towards to more circular business model;
  • Your organisation is interested in considering how it might adopt circular thinking in future business innovation;
  • You’d like to hear about future events relating to this topic;
  • You have specific ideas or challenges you’d like to discuss with someone at the Centre for Innovative Manufacturing in Large-Area Electronics.

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