18 Jun Contributing to safe and circular electronics
Bromine-based technologies contribute to sustainability including circular solutions, fulfilling a wide range of environmental, social and economic needs in water treatment, mercury emissions control, fire safety, energy storage, pharmaceuticals and rubber.
With respect to electronics, Brominated Flame Retardants (BFRs), contribute to fire safety due to the reduced propensity of materials for ignition. This not only means a contribution to saving lives, but also minimises property damage, thus conserving resources.
The last 20 years have seen a dramatic rise in the amount and variety of electrical and electronic equipment (E&E) in houses, offices and public buildings, with an estimated average of 22 electronic and electrical appliances in a typical home. Many of these devices routinely carry electrical currents and thus generate heat as a by-product, adding to the fire load in the home. Therefore, it is essential that these flammable components, including printed circuit boards, do not pose a fire risk for consumers during their use.
Electronics make widespread use of plastics to make products lighter, more creative, and cost effective. Plastic components are inherently combustible and need to be protected from ignition. Many of these components are designed to meet fire safety standards. Brominated Flame Retardants are often used in plastics to meet these standards and protect consumers from unanticipated fires. Brominated Flame Retardants are the most efficient group of chemistries as they can be used in many plastics, offer a high degree of performance, and offer many choices for design. These chemistries are sometimes reacted into the plastic or added and bound to the material.¹
With the European Green Deal and, in particular, the Circular Economy Action Plan, the EU will address challenges presented by the increasing world population and growing demand for more products than ever before. This could in turn create more waste than ever. Ensuring that products can be used for longer periods, or be reused and recycled, is the key to unlocking the full potential of the circular economy. Today, more and more electronic products enter the market, but they are perceived as disposable and replaceable. The Commission’s Circular Economy Action Plan plans to address the Information and Communications Technology (ICT ) sector in detail with a range of measures designed to increase product life, reparability, reuse and efficient material recycling. This will challenge the entire value chain including the manufacturers of plastics and plastic additives such as flame retardants.
Brominated flame retardants in the material cycle
The principles of the circular economy call for a holistic assessment of a product’s environmental footprint, including the design and waste phases. Here, it is important to note that one is dependent on the other. Products need to be designed in such a way that their components can be fed back into the material cycle.
For decades brominated flame retardants, thanks to their high efficiency, have been used across a wide range of electronic applications and components. Today’s electronics contain a significant proportion of plastics. At the end of the useful life of electronic and electrical products, components containing brominated flame retardants can be subject to different waste management options. The choice depends on the amount and composition of the plastics waste stream as well as on local conditions.
It is necessary, in the EU, to segregate end of life plastics in electrical and electronic equipment containing Brominated Flame Retardants from other plastic streams. The primary reason for this is to ensure that older, restricted, brominated flame retardants are removed from the material stream and treated in accordance with relevant legislation.
There are now international standards in place to help recyclers achieve this obligation (EU WEEE CEN Standards – 50625 series). Greater application and use of these standards will further improve the effectiveness of treatment of plastics from electrical and electronic equipment.
Besides better treatment standards, a great deal of innovation has taken place over the past decade, making it possible to recycle a great proportion of the plastics contained in waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE). The current recycling potential could even be increased further through chemical recycling, which would allow the recovery of the original monomers to reuse them in the making of new REACH and RoHS compliant plastics. Such progress is especially important, as BFRs offer some of the best protection for the products and therefore the consumers, so any additional increase to the recycling capacities and possibilities will help ensure the best available materials are used in electronics.
In some cases, Brominated Flame Retardants may be the best choice for circularity. They show high stability during mechanical recycling and this attribute is preserved throughout the process of mechanical recycling, which allows the recycled plastics to maintain the level of fire safety of the virgin material. Of course, to ensure that the full potential of the recycling capacity is reached, industry and policy makers must work together to ensure that the right processes and thresholds are put in place.
A better understanding of the impact of brominated flame retardants on WEEE plastics recycling
Given the complex nature of WEEE recycling and the range of issues related to WEEE plastics recycling mentioned, BSEF has commissioned a study to better understand and quantify brominated flame retardant containing plastics from waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) and the effect of the presence of brominated flame retardants on the recyclability of WEEE plastics. The work is being carried out by consultants, SOFIES and is hoped to be completed by early September 2020. The analysis and results will be used by BSEF in its engagement with stakeholders and the European Commission on the implementation of the Circular Economy Action Plan and measures related to end of life treatment of electrical and electronic equipment.
1 American Chemistry Council – Composition of Electronic and Electrical Equipment