Holy Grail for circular economy is in Large-Area Electronics sector
A new strategy for the disposal of plastic waste was presented at this year’s InnoLAE conference at the Wellcome Genome Campus.
Now in its fifth year, InnoLAE - ‘Innovations in Large-Area Electronics’ – highlights electronic innovations in printed, flexible, plastic, organic and bio-electronics (where biology and electronics meet). Applications involve automotive, smart buildings, energy, healthcare and IoT.
The 12th and final workshop of the three-day event was titled “LAE and the Circular Economy”. This first-ever circular economy session was a huge success, according to organiser Chris Rider, director of the EPSRC Centre for Innovative Manufacturing in Large-Area Electronics. The EPSRC (Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council) Centre is forged from four universities – Cambridge, Swansea, Manchester and Imperial.
“We cover quite a lot of different applications in the field,” said Chris. “This was the first time for a session on the circular economy and sustainability, and was partly triggered by the fact that we are aiming at lowering the cost of electronic tagging that will tell you something about the object you’re looking at. So for instance you can ‘talk to’ whisky bottles on a shelf but this is only available for expensive products.”
This tagging refers to “smart bottles” or electronic shelf labels (ELS) which, when scanned with a phone, transmit advertising or other consumer messages.
“PragmatIC are going to drop the cost of this tagging by a big number,” said Chris. “So the question is: ‘What happens to the plastic at the end of its life cycle?’ It’s a big concept and we thought: ‘Are we making the problem worse or better?’ We can put the information into the tag, into the label, [describing] what sort of plastic it is, how it’s best disassembled – to help with how it can be sorted.”
Gillian Ewers, VP marketing at PragmatIC, also talked at the workshop. Later, she explained that the firm is indeed working on a new type of label.
“PragmatIC is working on very low-cost electronics that use a plastic-based chip, not a silicon-based chip, to reduce costs. We use a base of plastic that has a very thin layer of semi-conductor material on top of that. It’s not a chip as such but it associates a small amount of data which links to the information on the cloud.”
That information could be where the product is sourced from, or could describe food allergies for edible products, or it could relate to how to recycle the item – and it’s all hyper-local, so can be changed by the store’s staff to reflect current council collection services (‘blue or green bin?’ being the main dilemma hereabouts).
“Most of us have no idea what to put where when it comes to recycling,” says Gillian, “and it varies from area to area, so people are confused. People would be horrified if they knew that their black plastic ready-meal trays – NIR trays – can’t be sorted and end up in landfill.”
NIR trays are a new generation of near-infrared (NIR) detectable “masterbatches” to satisfy end-of-life recyclability concerns for problem single-life black plastic tubs, trays and films.
“The best recycling is where it’s triaged at home, that way it’s less likely to end up in landfill. You can’t get enough information on the label, so you embed it electronically and read it via your smartphone.
“The systems involved are massive, from manufacturers to waste recovery, but the industry wants to give the consumer more and indeed the consumer is demanding more, as we know from the outcry about plastic use. But when it comes to recycling most people are ignorant – it’s not that we don’t care, it’s just that we don’t know,” said Gillian.
Keynote speaker Janos Veres, program manager of the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) in Silicon Valley, told the Cambridge Independent: “It was a privilege to be asked to present a keynote at InnoLAE 2019, which brought together leading international experts from industry and academia. It was great to share leading-edge knowledge and research in this very exciting and fast moving field of electronics.”
“Electronics is entering a new era in which we need to go beyond mass production and begin to address unique, customised devices that are made on-demand,” he said. “Wearables, automotive and a vast range of IoT applications cannot be served by traditional ‘electronics in a box’ solutions and a key enabler for this transition is flexible and conformal electronics.”
Another presentation was given by Clement Gaubert, WEEE (Waste Electric and Electronic Equipment recycling) scheme manager at Veolia, the waste management company whose Cambridge base is on Cowley Road.
Clement said: “The field of Large-Area Electronics is very diverse. A lot of day to day electronic products exist thanks to complex innovations brought by the LAEs industry.
“We were very pleased to be invited to speak at the conference this year and discuss how LAEs can help improve the sorting of household plastics packaging, especially black plastics which are very difficult to sort at the moment.
“Veolia is a leader in the development of innovative technologies and a major player of the circular economy.
“We are involved in the Holy Grail project which is an industry-wide project bringing manufacturers, retailers, makers of sorting technology and waste management companies together to look at solving the challenge of efficiently identifying and sorting plastics.
“Some technologies such as digital watermarks and tracers which can be added to a product label or packaging have the potential to simplify the sorting of packaging waste.”
Other organisations working on the concept include the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Dame Ellen MacArthur is a former yachtswoman who created a foundation to inspire a generation to “rethink, redesign and build a positive future circular economy”.
“The Ellen MacArthur Foundation is joining the dots,” says Chris, “contacting the brands, and this was the first conversation in public about how that can happen. Resolving this is not just about the fact that we’re putting more waste out there – we could put some intelligence into things. I’m sufficiently engaged to want to push on and keep going.”
Another insight that emerged from InnoLAE’s circular economy session involved modular products. In his keynote on day three Marco Meloni, research analyst at Ellen MacArthur, discussed the modular economy. Applied to the mobile phone sector this would mean you buy a base mobile and add new components as they come along, rather than dumping the phone, thereby losing its precious metals.
“Buying a new phone every 18 months is not good for the environment,” says Chris. “You’re really getting only small improvements, and what happens to your old phone? So yes it’s to help save the planet, but at the end of the day it’s the council who collect waste so retrieving the resources means changing the entire business model.”
IDTechEX CEO Raghu Das, who gave a talk on industry day, added: “I think circular economy can apply to many, if not most, industries. In electronics many precious elements are retrieved but certainly more can be done but such recycling is still only normally done when there is profit to do so – such as reusing rare elements from phones.
“Otherwise governments need to step in to force the change. Some changes can be mixed – for example while the move from petrol/diesel to electric vehicle powertrains is good, it does create an issue about how to recycle the increasing volume of batteries which have limited lifetime.”
So how was the Q&A?
“The panel discussion went all over the place!” said Chris. “We’re all sitting in our silos and just starting to think across those silos. This is about how we can think about how we design products involving the circular economy and sustainability. Marco Meloni’s talk was really well received, he was really surprised. There’s a lot of support for thinking about it, but it’s early days.”
Indeed - and there'll be more this bendy, flexible, information-drenched space in due course.