Testing Barriers Slow Sustainable Electronics Production …and they affect EVERY SINGLE device you can imagine.

It currently feels like the words ‘sustainable’ and ‘electronics’ just don’t go together. Every day, there’s a new news report about toxic materials in batteries, or the massive amount of e-waste generated and pollution associated with its mismanagement. Nonetheless, innovation in electronics technology is the KEY to many sustainable innovations: from energy-efficient LEDs to renewable energy from solar panels. And these could lead to future sustainability breakthroughs!

So, what can we do to ensure electronics are developed efficiently? Let’s take batteries. Batteries are needed for all sorts of sustainable innovations: from renewable energy storage to electric vehicles. Yet, their production is onerous process; it can take years from their design to their final acceptance and distribution to the market. Specifically, the manufacture and testing of the performance and safety of a new battery design can make up the longest part of R&D process as shown in Figure 1. So, it’s not that we don’t have better battery technology, it takes years to be released while it’s going through testing!

Most of the time taken to build a new battery is from R&D. Source: Alishba Imran, Voltx

As I’ll soon explain, electronics have testing issues at every step of their development (from the initial design to maintenance while in use).  As a result Incredibly important innovations are being slowed down by testing: solar panels for clean energy, LiDAR for autonomous vehicles, lasers for fibre-optic networks.

This article is the first of a series of four articles on these key questions:

  1. What are ‘electronic tests’ anyways?
  2. What (specifically) do tests measure?
  3. Why is ‘EVERY’ electronic test slow?
  4. How can we speed up testing?

Question #1: What are ‘electronic tests’ anyways?

Certain types of tests are performed in all electronic industries. One of the longest types of testing is reliability testing. I’ll summarise a few reliability tests throughout the device’s life: from designing an electronic to maintaining it when it’s in use. This is shown below:

Overview of the tests I’ll talk about in a product’s life (Source: Madhav Malhotra)

Reliability enhancement tests: These tests happen when electronics are still being designed. The goal is to find the maximum limits of stress (e.g. vibrations, heat, current) that will break a product design. Then, engineers can fix the most common reasons for failure. For example, hard drives (electronics that store data on older computers) have a VERY tiny ‘head’ that reads and stores data on a magnetic disc (details here). It can be as small as a flake of pepper and is suspended over a disc rotating at 130 km/h! Any vibrations can damage this ‘head.’ So engineers should concentrate on trying to design better products by making the head safer.

Engineers have to make this tiny part (as small as a pepper flake) survive for years (CC-BY-2.0)

Accelerated lifetime test: These tests carried out in simulated stressful environments (e.g., 85° C and/or 100% humidity) assess the performance of electronic products before they are placed on the market. Their purpose is to find the specifications to market the product (e.g. warranty and lifetime).

Burn-in / screening tests: These tests happen during the production process. Their purpose is to find units of a product that have manufacturing defects (e.g. cracks, wires not soldered tightly, exposure to contaminants). They do this by setting a ‘challenge’ for all units by forcing them to survive tough conditions for a short amount of time. The theory is that units with defects will degrade in this short amount of time, so they can be separated from functional devices.

Acceptance Test: These tests happen right before the electronics are installed for use. Their purpose is to make sure that products meet the standards they’re supposed to. This is more important for larger electronics (like a factory machine) than consumer electronics.

Maintenance/Field Testing: These tests happen after electronics are deployed on the field. Their purpose is to check electronics’ quality and remaining useful life. Remaining useful life is NOT the same as lifetime. Lifetime means: “My phone battery will last 3 years.” Remaining useful life means: “I’ve used my battery for a year and now it has 2 years left to last.”

Lifetime and remaining useful life are hard to predict. Why? Because the real world is messy! You don’t just have a nice simple lab with exactly 50° C of heat, no weather changes, and no humans dropping, throwing or crashing devices ’accidentally’. It’s hard to account for the probability of ANY of those issues happening sometime in the next year. That’s why startups exist just to predict the remaining useful life of important electronics (like electric car batteries).

Given all these steps, no wonder it’s complicated to figure out where these tests can be sped up! And amidst this complicated confusion, we still continue to see important innovations (like batteries) have slower development… whether that be for storing clean energy or just stopping your phone from dying.

In the next part of this series, I’ll dive deeper into understanding what electronics tests are SPECIFICALLY measuring. That’s the first step before finding possible approaches to speed up testing and start innovating faster!

Written by Madhav Malhotra, a 17-year-old developer, designer, and entrepreneur-in-training. To find out more about the author, please visit https://www.madhavmalhotra.com/

Escalating E-Waste Could Turn An Opportunity into A Threat

Waste electrical and electronic equipment, known as e-waste, is the fastest growing solid waste stream globally. This growth is driven by the increasing economic development, urbanization, industrialization and income on the one hand (Debnath et al., 2018), and the planned obsolescence and modernization that make existing technologies redundant and/or out of fashion on the other (Awasthi et al., 2019). The recent UN’s Global E-waste Monitor 2020 report reveals that in 2019 around 53.6 million metric tonnes (Mt) of e-waste was generated globally[1], of which only 17.4% (9.3 Mt) was formally collected and recycled. The report makes no explicit reference to the fate of the remaining 82.6% of e-waste. It suggests that this may be legally (for refurbishment and reuse, often under false pretense) and illegally exported to developing countries (Forti et al., 2020), with much of the e-waste being non-functional and irreparable ‘e-scrap’ (Hinchliffe et al., 2020).

The irreversible environmental, economic and social negative consequences of e-scrap management in developing countries are well documented in the global literature, as are the opportunities for the informal recycling sector (Awasthi et al., 2019, Hinchliffe et al., 2020). For example, informal workers that live in vulnerable, marginal conditions are highly dependent on the income they earn from the sale of valuable resources e.g. copper and gold and components, they extract from e-waste. This income contributes towards the improvement of their livelihoods, and poverty eradication (Hinchliffe et al., 2020). In addition, the repair and reuse of good quality refurbished equipment can provide an affordable source of ICT equipment to a high number of people giving them access to mobile phones and computer facilities at home, school and businesses. This in turn supports the breakdown of the global ‘digital divide’, creating opportunities for social and economic development.

But, the situation is not so straightforward. E-scrap contains hazardous substances such as lead, mercury or brominated flame-retardants that pose high environmental and health risks if not properly managed. Informal recycling practices are suboptimal and are often carried out under inappropriate working conditions, with devastating environmental, economic and human health impacts. Workers do not have the skills and/or access to environmentally sound technologies and personal protective equipment rendering the management of e-waste in developing countries extremely dangerous and unstainable. The health and environmental implications associated with such practices are mounting in urgency due to the expected increase in the production and shipment of e-waste (Hinchliffe et al., 2020).

Is the breakdown of digital divide and poverty reduction a justification for the increasing production and shipment of e-waste to developing countries in spite of the environmental degradation and health implications? Where is the silver lining to such practices, and how should action be prioritized to reduce the environmentally destructive practices associated with the e-waste management practices? With the global volume of e-waste expected to increase over the next years, a holistic approach must be urgently sought after to identify the right solutions, and avoid the risk of undermining efforts to promote sustainable development alongside the sustainable recovery of resources from e-waste. This requires a holistic understanding of the system, looking at the design, production, use, disposal and management of e-waste, and the balancing of multi-dimensional values that span the political, environmental, economic, social and technical domains (Iacovidou et al., 2017). Currently, much of the attention and discussions are focused on the political and economic spheres that seem to bear little (if any) positive impact in curbing the e-waste management problems. Developing countries are still the backyards of developed ones, serving corporations at the back of impoverished people that seek to improve their well-being. Unless action is taken, the deleterious effects of inappropriate production, use, disposal and management of e-waste will soon become a global threat to our natural, social and economic systems.

A systems based approach could play a key role in understanding the drivers and barriers of e-waste production-use-management system and identifying ways of recovering maximum value for e-waste, whilst inflicting the lowest possible environmental, economic, social and technical impacts (Iacovidou et al., 2017). As described in (Iacovidou et al., 2017), the geographical scale and context and the consideration and selection of values from different stakeholders (incl. consumers and their behavioral traits) and policy-makers perspectives is essential to creating a clear picture of the e-waste issues and enabling the development of an integrated e-waste management strategy centered around the 3R’s principle of reduce, reuse, recycle for recovering maximum value from the e-waste stream, whilst promoting circularity and sustainability (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Overview of the key elements involved in the development of an integrated e-waste management plan

Developing and implementing an integrated e-waste management plan requires data, a good understanding of the relevant ecological, economic, social/ behavioural, political, and organizational drivers, and the development of a supportive regulatory and political landscape to encourage change. To that end, a global multi-national collaboration between regulators and governments, and other stakeholders is needed to revise, reform and promote social security and development, environmental protection and conservation, and regulatory and economic reconstruction of the e-waste production-consumption-management system (Iacovidou et al., 2017). It also requires the development of skills and capacity building to improve product design upstream, and facilities for e-waste management downstream of the e-waste system. This could also involve the employment of new environmentally sound technologies, given that there is space for establishing and maintaining a well-functioning market for sustainable and second-hand electrical and electronic equipment, and recycled materials. This is imperative for averting future irreversible consequences, and ensuring the scientific knowledge sharing, behavioral change based on awareness raising campaigns and good communication techniques; essential ingredients in promoting a sustainable management of e-waste resources alongside efforts to achieve circularity and sustainable development (Awasthi et al., 2019).

[1] Continental contribution: Asia (24.9 Mt), Americas (13.1 Mt), Europe (12 Mt), Africa (2.9 Mt), and and Oceania (0.7 Mt)


AWASTHI, A. K., LI, J., KOH, L. & OGUNSEITAN, O. A. 2019. Circular economy and electronic waste. Nature Electronics, 2, 86-89.
DEBNATH, B., CHOWDHURY, R. & GHOSH, S. K. 2018. Sustainability of metal recovery from E-waste. Frontiers of Environmental Science & Engineering, 12, 2.
FORTI, V., BALDE, C. P., KUEHR, R. & BEL, G. 2020. The Global E-waste Monitor 2020: Quantities, flows and the circular economy potential. Bonn, Geneva and Rotterdam: United Nations University/United Nations Institute for Training and Research, International Telecommunication Union, and International Solid Waste Association.
HINCHLIFFE, D., GUNSILIUS, E., WAGNER, M., HEMKHAUS, M., BATTEIGER, A., RABBOW, E., RADULOVIC, V., CHENG, C., DE FAUTEREAU, B., OTT, D., AWASTHI, A. K. & SMITH, E. 2020. Case studies and approaches to building Partnerships between the informal and the formal sector for sustainable e-waste management. Solving the E-waste Problem (StEP) Initiative.
IACOVIDOU, E., MILLWARD-HOPKINS, J., BUSCH, J., PURNELL, P., VELIS, C. A., HAHLADAKIS, J. N., ZWIRNER, O. & BROWN, A. 2017. A pathway to circular economy: Developing a conceptual framework for complex value assessment of resources recovered from waste. Journal of Cleaner Production, 168, 1279-1288.

Dr Eleni Iacovidou
Division of Environmental Sciences
College of Health, Medicine and Life Sciences
Brunel University London,
Kingston Ln, London,
Uxbridge UB8 3PH, UK

Dr Abishek Kumar Awasthi
School of Environment,
Nanjing University,
Nanjing 210023, China

Sustainable Agricultural Waste Management: From a Holistic Approach to a Focus on Plastic Recycling

It is a sad, but a true fact, that waste is ubiquitous in the environment!  So what should we do about it? The message is sound and clear and comes from both inside and outside of the European Union, via the proposed and now widely known “waste hierarchy” (shown underneath). The pyramid mainly ranks the processes based on their ability to protect the environment and human health, alongside resource value recovery, with the tip of the pyramid presenting the most favorable option, and from there downwards we have options ranked from the most favorable to the least favorable one.

The waste generated in the agricultural sector is mostly of organic nature. According to the waste hierarchy organic waste should be recycled via composting (aerobic decomposition of organic matter), but environmental impact assessments have shown that other alternatives such as anaerobic digestion (where microorganisms decompose the organic matter in the absence of oxygen into biogas) can offer more benefits compared to composting even though it ranks lower in the waste hierarchy. This offers a fundamental insight; the waste hierarchy should not be followed blindly but used as a blueprint to identifying the right option for the management of waste following a holistic analysis of the environmental, economic, social and technical impacts as shown in the Table below. You can find out more here.

This becomes more evident when we look into the other types of waste materials generated in the agricultural sector, specifically plastics. Plastics or plastic-based materials are used in many different processes in the agricultural sector, such as: plastic films in low tunnels regulating the temperature and controlling other climatic conditions; mulch cover to retain humidity; plastic irrigation pipes that restrict the unnecessary use of water and/or nutrients; plastic reservoirs that can collect rain water; and plastic films used for silage storage protecting crops, just to name a few. Other plastic articles used in the agricultural sector include the boxes and plastic crates for crop collection-handling-transport, other irrigation system components (e.g. fittings and spray cones), tapes for keeping elevated the upper parts of the greenhouse plants, nets to darken the interior of the greenhouses or minimise the effects of hail.

All those plastic components and products serve a useful purpose, but once they reach the of their service life they become waste. The best option to manage these wastes is to retrieve them from the fields, sort them into flexible and rigid type and having them collected by a waste collection company that takes them to specialized facilities for treatment. Rigid plastics can go to sorting and reprocessing facilities where here they are sorted to different types (e.g. PET, HDPE, LDPE, PP) before being grinded, washed, decontaminated and turned into pellets. The secondary plastic materials generated via this treatment process can then be used again as recycled content in the manufacturing of new products i.e. bags, plastic lumbers and sidewalk pavers, a process widely known as downcycling, or cascading recycling process. In the case of films that are heavily contaminated and cannot be cleaned sufficiently, or other flexible plastic articles that cannot be reprocessed mechanically, the energy recovery process (following in order the recycling in the waste hierarchy) is a valuable alternative, recovering the calorific value of plastics.

All this sounds great right? But does this happen in reality? With only ca. 10% of agricultural plastics being currently recycled globally, it is safe to suggest that we have a long way ahead of us in moving towards a circular plastics economy in the agricultural sector. Most importantly, we need to revisit the waste hierarchy and begin our efforts to tackle agricultural waste management from the tip of the pyramid and move downwards according to the context and types of wastes generated. To that end a system of systems approach can help us understand the multi-faceted challenges that currently hamper progress in promoting sustainable circularity in the agricultural sector, and help us identify  which, and where changes are needed in the system to enable transformational change.

Dr. John N. Hahladakis
Chemical Engineer (M.Eng., double M.Sc., Ph.D.)
Asst. Professor
Center for Sustainable Development
Qatar University