Electronic textiles are a vanguard of an emerging generation of smart products. They consist of small electronic devices that are seamlessly embedded into clothing and technical textiles. E-textiles provide enhanced functions in a variety of unobtrusive and convenient ways. Like many high-tech products, e-textiles may evolve to become a mass market in the future. In this case, large amounts of difficult-to-recycle products will be discarded. That can result in new waste problems.
This article examines the possible end-of-life implications of textile-integrated electronic waste. As a basis for assessment, the innovation trends of e-textiles are reviewed, and an overview of their material composition is provided. Next, scenarios are developed to estimate the magnitude of future e-textile waste streams. On that base, established disposal and recycling routes for e-waste and old textiles are assessed in regard to their capabilities to process a blended feedstock of electronic and textile materials. The results suggest that recycling old e-textiles will be difficult because valuable materials are dispersed in large amounts of heterogeneous textile waste. Moreover, the electronic components can act as contaminants in the recycling of textile materials.
We recommend scrutinizing the innovation trend of technological convergence from the life cycle perspective. Technology developers and product designers should implement waste preventative measures at the early phases in the development process of the emerging technology.