Electronic technician holding tweezers and assemblin a circuit board.


Electronic components and devices are pervasive in a modern society, enabling daily activities for individuals as well as important commercial and industrial processes. The continued and expanded use of electronics will be critical for the green and digital transition. This growth, in turn, will be sustainable only via broad adoption of the Safe-and-Sustainable-by-Design (SSbD) practices across the electronics value chain.

Performance improvements or new functions of electronic devices are often enabled by progress or breakthroughs in materials science, and many rare and critical elements are currently incorporated into the electronics value chain. Considering the criteria of the SSbD evaluation framework, the impact of electronics varies both in terms of the magnitude and the balance between the detrimental and beneficial contributions.

Production, operation and end-of-life safety

The production of electronics typically is carried out inside ‘cleanroom’ facilities, which are designed to prevent the contamination of the products or devices being fabricated and assembled. The facilities operate with some of the strictest industry standards for both the internal environment and the emitted gases or liquids, which also means that the workforce and local population are inherently well protected from coming in contact with these substances.

During the operation phase, the active electronic components typically must be encapsulated to prevent any contact with the environment, as exposure to air or water will typically destroy their function. Thus, during the operation phase, the electronic devices do not pose significant safety concerns in terms of exposure to toxic or dangerous substances.

In contrast to the production and operation, significant safety concerns arise during the end-of-life phase of electronics, because the protection due to compounding and encapsulation is typically removed in the process of disassembly, recycling, and disposal. Currently, this phase often happens in low-income countries where artisanal methods used expose the workers and the surrounding communities to the dangerous substances released during the end-of-life processing. The value chain is working to address this issue via designing specialized (and enhanced with automation) facilities and designing the products to be easier to repair, disassemble, and recycle.

Carbon footprint

In terms of the use of resources and carbon footprint, the production phase dominates for electronics, because the transformation of materials for electronics is intrinsically resource intensive. The purification of materials for use in semiconductor industry is resource intensive and, despite producing thousands of chips from a single wafer, the production requires hundreds of litres of highly purified liquids and gases per chip. The carbon footprint of producing a chip is typically higher than that of all the energy that chip will use during its lifetime of operation. Nevertheless, in many cases, the sustainable applications enabled by electronic devices, including the electrification initiatives that could not exist without the advanced power chips, do save more resources than those required to produce the electronic components.

The International Iberian Nanotechnology Laboratory (INL) is a partner in IRISS and is an international intergovernmental research organisation. The aim of the organisation is to perform cutting-edge research and development in nanotechnology and to function as an innovation integrator in multiple application domains.