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Speaker Interview: Dr Jonathan Swanston & Jack Herring, JIVA Materials

Speaker Interview: Dr Jonathan Swanston & Jack Herring, JIVA Materials

September 19, 2019
Nick Bradley

E-Waste World Conference & Expo speakers Dr Jonathan Swanston and Jack Herring from JIVA Materials help us get to the heart of their green alternative to traditional PCB materials

In the immediate weeks following Apple’s annual iPhone launch soirée at the Steve Jobs Theater in September, the early signs are looking up for the tech giant, with expected shipment delivery times for the iPhone 11 Pro and Pro Max models reportedly being pushed out. Of course, the volume of pre-orders setting back delivery schedules doesn’t always extrapolate to hard sales, but nevertheless the company’s executives in Cupertino will no doubt be breathing a sigh of relief, particularly following last year’s relatively poor showing for the XR and XS models, due in no small part to consumers clinging onto their devices for longer.

The flipside for the environment, though, is that since fewer perennial iPhone users upgraded last year, something in the ballpark of 350 million of the 900 million iPhones currently on the market are likely to be replaced soon, especially as rumours abound that Apple’s 2020 generation may integrate 5G. And that’s just Apple. Overall, 1.56 billion smartphones were sold worldwide in 2018.

In fairness to Apple, it does sit near the top of the tech class when it comes to sustainability. In 2018, it refurbished more than 7.8 million Apple devices, in doing so diverting 48,000 metric tonnes of e-waste from landfill, while its Daisy recycling machine – which at 200 phone disassemblies an hour is capable of pulling apart 1.2 million devices a year – is being rolled out elsewhere, meaning more and more valuable materials such as cobalt, for instance, being pumped back into Apple’s battery supply chain. Meanwhile, Apple’s new 9,000ft2 facility in Austin, Texas, is analyzing recycling solutions incorporating robotics and machine learning – clear signals of intent when it comes to fostering a circular economy within its operations.

Back to the drawing board
You would expect Apple to be as innovative when it comes to end of life as it is in product design. But rather than having to develop recycling technologies to play catchup with the ever-advancing complexity and pace of the electronics sector, wouldn’t it make more sense for the electronics sector to go back to the drawing board and make devices even simpler to recycle in the first place? Certainly, Jack Herring thinks so. “Fairphone is leading the way for more ethical sourcing, by building smartphones with responsible and sustainable materials, including recycled plastic, copper and tin as well as trade-certified gold,” he begins.

Fairphone is leading the way for more ethical sourcing, by building smartphones with responsible and sustainable materials, including recycled plastic, copper and tin as well as trade-certified gold

Herring, the CEO and founder of JIVA Materials, pays particular attention to the sustainability initiatives of electronics manufacturers as he is hoping that his contribution to a more circular industry, ‘Soluboard’, could become a major – and much greener – alternative component in future electronics devices.

“While studying for my Masters in London, I was presented with a brief by my tutors at the Royal College of Art to optimize a waste stream,” he recounts. “E-Waste was and continues to be the fastest-growing waste stream in the world, meaning that it was the most logical problem to try and solve.” Acknowledging the innovation that has taken place in the world of industrial design and in terms of redesigning how electronics and electrical products are being dismantled, Herring, then in his early 20s, set out to redesign a common feature among all of these products, one that has all too often been disregarded by designers – the PCB.

The environmental impact of e-waste
During his studies, Herring became aware of just how much of a negative impact the man-made materials currently used in PCBs can have on the environment if not disposed of correctly. “The current substrate used in the PCB industry is constructed from epoxy resin and fiber glass, so the only method of processing waste PCBs involves shredding and incinerating them to extract the precious metals within,” he says. “That’s a really inefficient process with substantial loss of those metals during reprocessing as well as releasing toxins such as cyanide, mercury and dioxins into the environment. Natural fibers have been combined with bio-resins and used as direct replacements for glass-fiber/epoxy resin composites in a number of sports and leisure applications so it was obvious to me that there was scope for experimentation of this technology for use in more technical applications. That was the genesis of Soluboard.”

Natural fibers have been combined with bio-resins and used as direct replacements for glass-fiber/epoxy resin composites in a number of sports and leisure applications so it was obvious to me that there was scope for experimentation of this technology for use in more technical applications. That was the genesis of Soluboard

“I thought it [Soluboard] was a great idea and a novel solution to a major problem,” reveals Dr Jonathan Swanston, who was introduced to Herring at the end of 2017 and with his background in techno-entrepreneurship is helping to commercialize the flax-based material with JIVA Materials. “It’s a direct replacement for FR-4, the glass-reinforced epoxy laminate currently used in the PCB sector,” he adds. “We initially chose flax as the strengthening material but we have patented and are continuing to experiment with other natural fibers, including hemp and jute. The biggest challenge in the e-waste sector is to make the recovery of valuable and rare components and chemical elements easier. Moreover, the current recycling process for PCBs means recycling is only worthwhile if the PCBs have a high gold content, due to the amount of energy required for shredding and incineration. The water-based process required to recycle a Soluboard PCB is substantially more efficient in terms of energy as well as cost, meaning both high- and low-end PCBs could be more effectively recycled.”

Price competitive and sustainable
Of course, JIVA Materials is far from the only company investigating other materials for electronics components, but factoring in the readiness of Soluboard, which will start shipping in 2020, have Swanston and Herring seen a willingness on the part of producers to embrace such alternatives? “There is an interest in more environmentally friendly materials but they have to be the same cost or less than existing substrates,” Swanston notes. “Soluboard has been designed to be the same price as FR-4, the market-leading substrate. A number of our potential customers have had internal goals set by their boards to drastically reduce the environmental impacts of their products. With carbon footprints aiming to be halved in some cases and the reluctance to introduce unnecessary plastics into their supply chains, the producers we are speaking with have shown substantial interest as to how Soluboard would benefit the life-cycle assessments of their products.”

There is an interest in more environmentally friendly materials but they have to be the same cost or less than existing substrates. Soluboard has been designed to be the same price as FR-4, the market-leading substrate

The presence of plastics in e-waste is more often than not conveniently forgotten and as such the electronics sector doesn’t come under anywhere near the scrutiny facing big brands in other industries. When was the last time Greenpeace infiltrated the AGM of one of the major tech companies? E-plastics are simply much less throwaway and hence less visible, but potentially much more harmful. You don’t see it floating around gyres in the Pacific or washing up on beaches in Indonesia. They generally just end up in landfill or are burned – invisible to the public gaze but leaving an indelible mark on the environment. Maybe e-waste needs its ‘Blue Planet’ trigger. But would it have any effect? Humanity seems to empathise more with whales washing up on beaches filled with carrier bags than it does seeing children in Ghana burning barrels of cables to extract copper. “The disconnect between the manufacturer, the consumer and the recycler could be to blame for the lack of awareness of the e-waste issue,” feels Herring. “We are all guilty of handing over our products at their end of life to what we believe is the most responsible waste handler, although this is very often not the case.”

The disconnect between the manufacturer, the consumer and the recycler could be to blame for the lack of awareness of the e-waste issue. We are all guilty of handing over our products at their end of life to what we believe is the most responsible waste handler, although this is very often not the case

On the same subject, Swanston, who is responsible for developing Soluboard – including the optimization of its manufacture, testing and supply chain – refers to statistics from the UK. “In 2018, there were 1.3 million tonnes of electrical and electronic products placed onto the market. The UK Environment Agency recorded that less than one million tonnes of waste electronics were collected but only 540,000 tonnes were treated at an approved facility. Globally, there is something in the region of 18 billion square meters of PCB made every year – a lot of these are for single-use items that find their way into waste streams within 12 months.”

Just as some people didn’t know plastics were part of the e-waste cocktail, few would realize that some electronics could also be single use.

What’s next?
So, what’s next for JIVA Materials? “We have secured funding from Innovate UK for a 30-month project,” says Herring. “The primary aim of this project is demonstrating the feasibility of producing Soluboard in high volumes and to show that the resulting PCB can match the performance of the incumbent glass-epoxy laminates.”

“Our aim to is license to larger producers of PCBs such as manufacturers within the white goods industry and to sell directly to small- and medium-sized users such as the manufacturers of electrical lighting circuits,” continues Swanston. Just as Apple is hopeful for its latest-generation iPhone, for which there could eventually be an application for Soluboard, Swanston and Herring are confident about their creation. “The organic structure of Soluboard means that the non-toxic ingredients begin to delaminate when immersed into warm water, which allows the natural plant-based fibers to be composted,” explains Herring. “The remaining solution can be disposed of using standard domestic wastewater systems and the electronic components can be removed for re-processing.”

The organic structure of Soluboard means that the non-toxic ingredients begin to delaminate when immersed into warm water, which allows the natural plant-based fibers to be composted. The remaining solution can be disposed of using standard domestic wastewater systems and the electronic components can be removed for re-processing

The UK is well situated geographically for the sourcing of flax, with northern France, just across the Channel, widely acknowledged to be the long-fiber flax hot-spot in the world and the location of a substantial amount of R&D having been conducted regarding the properties of the material. “Data sheets provided by flax producers suggest that the fiber was not substantially indifferent from the mechanical and electrical properties than the glass-fiber alternative,” reports Swanston.

Both Swanston and Herring will be representing JIVA Materials at E-Waste World Conference & Expo in Frankfurt to meet with the likes of Electrolux, Epson, Dell, Apple and HP to demonstrate the potential. Herring is especially complimentary about the latter in terms of its green initiatives. “They are helping electronics hoarders let go of their unwanted devices by publicly offering recycling services, trade-in incentives, return for cash and donation options,” he enthuses. “HP has prevented more than half a million tonnes of ocean-bound plastics from entering the eco-system. More than 80% of HP ink cartridges and 100% HP LaserJet toner cartridges are manufactured with recycled content.”

Pressure to close the loop
Eventually, who knows when, the focus of attention will fall on the electronics manufacturers, just in the same way that it has with big plastics consumers such as Coca-Cola. But the electronics sector currently has an opportunity to limit brand degradation by acting responsibly in every facet of its operations, from raw materials sourcing to end-of-life recovery strategies. Swanston agrees. “You will see increasing pressure from consumers for manufacturers and their suppliers to ‘close the loop’ and take back electronics at their end of life,” he says. “The problems that e-waste is causing environmentally will eventually be highlighted by the media. And this will mean that sustainability will become a focal point for the marketing and hence the ultimate success of electronic and electrical equipment manufacturers.”

The problems that e-waste is causing environmentally will eventually be highlighted by the media. And this will mean that sustainability will become a focal point for the marketing and hence the ultimate success of electronic and electrical equipment manufacturers

“The speaker lineup and confirmed attendees at E-Waste World Conference & Expo confirm an increasing awareness of e-waste among a number of leading global electronics brands,” concludes Herring. “It will be interesting to hear how they are working towards decreasing their environmental footprints and whether they see Soluboard fitting into their supply chains. It truly is a long-term alternative to the current PCB laminates they’re using.”

E-Waste World Conference & Expo will take place from Thursday 14 November to Friday 15 November at the Kap Europa, Frankfurt Messe, Germany. To register for this highly focused, solutions-driven event, please click here. For sponsorship and exhibition opportunities, please email peter@trans-globalevents.com

 

JIVA has developed ‘Soluboard’ – a patented, competitively priced and fully recyclable PCB substrate to rival the industry standard. Around 18 billion square meters of PCBs are manufactured every year and the rising value of precious metals within PCBs means that efficient recycling is a necessity. Waste PCBs are currently processed by shredding and incinerating them to extract the precious metals within. This is a very inefficient process with substantial loss of these metals during reprocessing. JIVA will use Soluboard as a catalyst to rethink the way that we are handling the fastest-growing waste stream in the world.

 

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