Nanotechnology Engineering Program Director, Professor Ting Tsui took part in two discussions in the Sustainable Future Perspectives panel dialogues. The ongoing series is hosted by the Waterloo Institute for Nanotechnology (WIN) and the Department of Chemical Engineering.

The first discourse focused on recycling electronic components and reducing global waste. The discussion drew attention to rapidly developing limitations to the supply of numerous chemical elements commonly found in liquid crystal displays and batteries. Due to this rapid depletion of natural resources, society will soon be forced to consider “urban mining.” Urban mining would involve reclaiming these minerals and elements from discarded electronic devices.

The second event in the series was titled: “Circular Economies: Electronic and Electrochemical Devices.” The November event focused on ways that University of Waterloo researchers can contribute to several important areas in the circular economy.

These include recycling battery materials, researching new materials to make better batteries, and creating proactive solutions to mitigate delays in the establishment of new mines and how to best assist industrial partners to remain financially viable during these lag times. These suggestions included creating improved business models and strengthening government policies regarding mining and recycling.

Mario Ioannidis, Komal Habib, Michael Fowler, Ting Tsui, Steven Young and Sushanta Mitra

The series moderators were Professors Mario Ioannidis, Chair of the Department of Chemical Engineering and Sushanta Mitra, Executive Director of WIN. The esteemed panel was comprised of Professors Komal Habib and Steven Young from the School of Environment, Enterprise and Development (SEED), Professor Mike Fowler from the Department of Chemical Engineering and member of WISE, (Waterloo Institute for Sustainable Energy), Professor Ting Tsui, Chemical Engineering professor and WIN researcher, and Dr. Asmae Mokrini from the National Research Council (NRC).

Tsui has expertise in semiconductor fabrication. He commented that sustainability and the establishment of a circular economy must involve more than recycling. Reusing current materials and reducing the appetite for new electronic items must be part of the solution to mitigating electronic waste. Tsui pointed out that although industry specifications generally state that electronics should last for ten years, it’s accepted that most consumers replace their phones many times in a decade.

Tsui introduced the concept of de-fashioning electronics. He points out that the cultural phenomenon in certain demographics that considers electronics a fashion statement or a sign of status is an issue. The electronics industry marketing strategy is highly successful. People want the latest smartwatches and upgraded phones annually without concern or thought about where the fully functional discarded electronics end up. To reduce waste, clothing thrift stores have become popular. Tsui argued that the same type of approach to electronics would be highly beneficial.

The panel discussed the emerging global expectation for extended producer responsibility. This concept links the producer of a new product to the end of its life cycle, making it their obligation to manage the product's end-of-life responsibly. By doing so, producers will be held accountable for their greenhouse gas emissions.