A Circular Life for High-Tech Polymers
As part of the “PolyCE” project, the researchers at the Fraunhofer IZM are helping recover and reuse polymers from waste as a precious resource for new products.
Discarded mobile phones, vacuum cleaners, tablet computers, or televisions – Europe alone is responsible for more than nine million tons of electronics waste every year. Most is never recycled despite being made from high-quality synthetic materials. When old electronics reach the end of their lives, the polymers in their innards and exterior cases are rarely returned to be used again in other products. Instead, they end up in incineration plants or in the furnaces of the cement industry, lost forever for any other purpose. The flood of electronics waste and the sheer amount of plastics taken out of the economy are cause for alarm for the European Commission. Its Circular Economy Package 2016 is calling on the electronics industry to create new material cycles and use resources efficiently in their value chains. This is an uphill challenge, as plastics are a complex material made from several different compounds and additives. All of this serves to make their recycling and reuse technologically complex and financially costly. To recover and return synthetic materials to the production cycle, a basic rethink is needed along the entire value chain.
Covering the Entire Value Chain
The challenge was taken up in June by the new “PolyCE” project, launched by the Fraunhofer Institute for Reliability and Microintegration IZM with the mission to develop a holistic cyclical economy concept for high-tech polymers. “PolyCE” stands for “Post-Consumer High-Tech Recycled Polymers for a Circular Economy”, which expresses the vision of the project’s initiators. Their shared ambition, to accelerate the transition towards a cyclical economy for polymers, has brought together twenty high-profile partners from industry, engineering, and academia. They have set their sights on every link in the value chain: From product designers, polymer and additive developers to recycling enterprises and electronics manufacturers. One of the challenges for them to overcome lies in finding ways for recycled polymers to stand up to the quality of newly produced material. The plastic recycled from a vacuum cleaner’s body should withstand heat, cope with knocks and scrapes, and retain its shape just as well when it becomes a new monitor housing. Another focus of the project is the development of environmentally friendly and cyclical-economy-ready fire retardants and additives. The researchers at the Catholic University of Louvain and the University of Ghent have teamed up with Italy’s electronics recycling consortium ECODOM, the Underwriters Laboratories, and the recycling specialists MBA Polymers to draft a comprehensive list of requirements for recycling plastics from electronics waste and establish a standardized quality management system.
Several industry partners have begun to use the recycled materials in their products and are giving more leverage to the project’s goals. This includes designers from the Pezy Group, the developer of the Puzzlephone, Ona, Philips, and Whirlpool as project partners. “We all need to pull in the same direction to finally establish a genuine cyclical economy for high-tech polymers”, Gergana Dimitrova, environmental expert at the Fraunhofer Institute for Reliability and Microintegration IZM, explains. From her offices in Berlin, she coordinates the Europe-wide project and is committed to raising awareness among consumers for the issue of alternative product use concepts and recycled polymers. Gergana Dimitrova, who has been involved in similar IZM projects like CloseWEEE, believes: “We need more education”. Awareness campaigns and technical workshops for the actors in the industry are being organized in cooperation with the United Nations University and the European Environmental Bureau.