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The Environmental Impact of Semiconductor and Electronics Manufacturing

Printed circuit boards, semiconductors and other types of electronics have more advanced technology than ever. However, with increasing complexity in product design comes a wider range of materials used. Some of the substances traditionally used to create PCBs can cause harm to the environment and the people who handle them. Fortunately, the electronics industry has also taken measures to reduce its impact on the planet. This guide will explain common environmental issues associated with printed circuit boards and how suppliers and manufacturers address them.

Are Printed Circuit Boards Hazardous Waste?

PCBs include a variety of materials. While some substances used in PCB production count as hazardous waste, others have no negative impact on people or the environment. In 2011, the European Union published the Restriction of Hazardous Substances Act (RoHS), which limits or bans the use of certain materials in PCBs and other electronics. To export a product to an EU country, a business must follow RoHS. This directive also provides guidelines for manufacturers looking to produce their PCBs responsibly.

RoHS regulates the use of the following materials used to make PCBs:

  • Lead
  • Mercury
  • Cadmium
  • Hexavalent chromium
  • Polybrominated biphenyls
  • Polybrominated diphenyl ether

These components have the highest risk of contaminating landfills and harming production workers. PCBs that comply to RoHS have much lower levels of hazardous substances than non-compliant products. Many companies ensure all their products follow RoHS guidelines so they can freely trade with EU countries. Therefore, PCBs don’t have as many hazardous materials as they did in the past.

PCB Recycling Methods

While PCBs can have long lifespans, they all eventually stop functioning. Once a PCB becomes defective, many consumers and companies now opt to recycle it instead of throwing it out. Recycling PCB materials not only reduces the waste that goes into landfills, but it also lowers the number of natural resources needed to manufacture new PCBs and other products. The PCB industry recycles manufacturing waste and defective products using methods such as:

  • Recovering copper from the PCB’s edge trim
  • Reclaiming tin from tin or lead solder dross
  • Extracting copper oxide from wastewater sludge
  • Recovering copper from spent etching solution and stripping solution
  • Separating copper hydroxide from copper sulfate solution

While most recycling methods for PCBs involve extracting metals, scientists keep discovering new ways to give the nonmetallic parts a new life. For example, environmental engineers discovered that they could use nonmetallic PCB parts to absorb heavy metals in water.

Reducing Emissions in the Semiconductor Industry

Just as PCBs power critical technology, semiconductors make PCBs work. With semiconductors leading most of the country’s industries in exports, the industry aims to reduce their emissions as much as possible. According to a 2014 report, the semiconductor industry created a fraction of one percent of the United States’ greenhouse gas emissions. Electronic manufacturers such as semiconductor manufacturers create about 0.2% of all industrial emissions.

Most greenhouse gases created by the industry come from the use of fluorinated gases required for advanced processes. The Semiconductor Industry Association (SIA) works to reduce these emissions as much as possible. SIA members report their fluorinated gas emissions to the EPA on a regular basis, and they have reduced their collective numbers by 50% since 1999. They also work with the World Semiconductor Council (WSC) to commit to long-term reduction goals.

How Does the Semiconductor Industry Address Environmental Concerns?

In addition to lowering their greenhouse gas emissions, the SIA aims to address chemicals of concern and worker safety. Semiconductors can also contain substances that have the potential to harm people and the environment. Whenever they find that a material has hazardous properties, they stop using it for non-essential purposes and research alternatives for its critical uses. The SIA also commissioned a five-year study that examined the impact of semiconductor manufacturing on cleanroom employees. The study found that their methods didn’t raise the rate of mortality from any illness.

The SIA also ensures semiconductors don’t increase energy consumption. In fact, research shows that semiconductor technology such as the technology used in PCBs is more energy efficient than older technology.

Industry-Leading PCB Technology

In the current era, environmental responsibility is a critical aspect of business innovation. At MCL, we offer products and solutions that ensure our customers grow within their own industries. Our RoHS-compliant PCB boards contain no lead, and we follow the directive’s rules for worker exposure and recycling. Creating the future not only involves technological advancement, but also following standards that create a safe industry and planet. Contact us today for more information about our PCBs and business practices.

PCB Glossary

  • Screen Printing

    A process for transferring an image to a surface by forcing suitable media through a stencil screen with a squeegee.