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Going circular

Technology manufacturers are increasingly being encouraged to think about the circular economy – the concept that materials and goods should be kept in circulation for longer rather than follow the traditional ‘linear’ model of make, sell, use, then dispose.

Getting this right needs everyone in the chain to play a role, especially engineers and designers. What has caused that shift?

Environmental pressures from waste, a growing focus on the carbon impact of our buying behaviours and concern over the availability and accessibility of critical resources is stimulating governments, societies and business to look at new ways of doing things. Resource intensive sectors like manufacturing have been under particular pressure to reform. There have been some huge gains in resource efficiency and productivity in the last couple of decades. A global combination of innovation, regulation, rising material value and changing cultures has seen renewed interest and action to improve our resource productivity. For example, in the B2B ICT market, assets are routinely remanufactured or refurbished for secondary markets and Apple recently committed to stop mining for its iPhone materials at some point in the future.

Industrial design and better engineering are the keys to making this happen. But it is also fair to say that the sector is under increasing scrutiny as electronics continue to proliferate. NGOs, such as Greenpeace, ifixit and the Restart programme, as well as Government itself, are becoming increasingly vocal in expecting industry to respond positively to this agenda.

Eco-design; the unsung hero

Eco-design means designing electrical products in a way that reduces their environmental impact and incorporates some of what has been discussed earlier. It was described as the ‘unsung hero’ in reducing domestic energy use and in Europe is governed by the EU Eco-design Directive.

The Directive covers product types which the EU believes cause 40% of all greenhouse gas emissions and sets energy limits. It will increasingly set out design requirements to manage e-products at the end of their first life. The Directive is a ‘framework’, which means that specific product policies are developed that sit beneath it. To support this work, standards are being developed to define some core ‘material efficiency’ qualities, such as: how easy products are to repair; remanufacture and upgrade procedures; and how much recycled material they contain. The standards will also look at how to communicate where critical raw materials and other material efficiency information are within the supply chain. Be under no doubt: legislation will be coming soon to shape the way in which electronics can be treated at the end of their life. What might be expect?

You will have seen the letters ‘EU’ a few times already and are probably wondering how Brexit will impact the circular economy and eco-design as these are very much EU initiatives. The current thinking is that these laws will be bought into the UK and won’t change. The Environment and Business Departments appreciate that product requirements are set internationally and don’t want to reduce the level of environmental protection.

However, that doesn’t mean there is nothing to worry about. There is a real risk that the UK will withdraw from CE marking, which techUK and other manufacturing and trade bodies believe could be disastrous. The UK is also set to leave REACH, which could restrict the supply of substances upon which electronics manufacturers rely. Furthermore, there are signs that the Department of the Environment is interested in understanding how they can incentivise design changes.

Some of the areas currently under most discussion are design for repair and design for reuse/recycling.

Designing for repair

Making sure goods can be repaired is widely considered the best way to ensure they can stay in circulation for longer. Average product lifespans have increased recently and recycling organisation WRAP estimates that ICT products are 53 to 96% more durable than consumer expectations, depending on the category. This hasn’t happened accidentally; it has been because of innovation, technological advancement and better design

Repair did have an image problem, but is becoming ‘cooler’ as consumer expectations change and things like ‘upcycling’ have taken off. In the tech and ICT sector, there has been a lot of momentum from industry and government recently. The EU is completing five studies and the tech sector (including the UK) is reviewing the positive impact of repair and the policies that we feel are needed to make it happens.

There have been reservations in the past, such as concerns on the impact of repair on new product sales and the safety risks of untrained people attempting repairs that could result in further damage, fire or injury. techUK has been working with Electrical Safety First on the obvious pitfalls of attempting DIY repairs and promoting official repair channels as the only viable route. It is fair that there is a long way to go on this.

For the engineers though, how can tech goods – and consumer goods in particular – and the things that go in them be optimised for repair at the design stage? Goods have got cheaper, more compact and more software defined, so making sure they can be fixed easily is an issue, but there are some basic principles that should be observed.

Placing those components most likely to fail inaccessibly is something to avoid, as is integrating them to other components to the extent they can’t be swapped out for upgrade. Not using glue where possible helps, as does avoiding proprietary fastenings or screws that need specialist tools. Labelling panels and ports with indications of which way to open them is also essential and manufacturers are increasingly asked to provide repair and safe disassembly instructions online and with the product.

Designing for reuse and recycling

When something can’t be repaired, the next step in the circular model is to see how a product can be reused or recycled. Learning lessons from the business to business server market, new business models have developed that can see tech repurposed as well as value extracted from the raw materials.

So what is the role for designers and engineers?

Whilst innovation and functionality should guide design, it’s probably fair to say that worldwide regulations have had a significant impact on how electronics are designed. Designing a product so it can be taken apart more readily may sound counter-intuitive, but it helps to reduce costs by rationalising the number and cost of materials, shows compliance with regulations and makes it easier to extract value from broken or end of life goods.

Goods (such as laptops and TVs) need to be able to be disassembled in a few minutes, which can dictate where PCBs, power supplies and ports need to be located and designing for quick disassembly is all about simplifying where ‘stuff’ is in the device. Using the smallest number of components, different materials, fastenings and avoiding glue will make it easier for remanufacturers or recyclers to take a product apart, or to harvest components for reuse, as will other steps such as making sure products can be taken apart with a couple of basic tools.

Conclusion

The circular economy is only going to become a bigger priority and it is more than likely that engineers and the electronics sector will be the ones who deliver the designs and engineering that mean complex electronics and electrical goods can be reused.

Get involved

If you are interested in helping drive forward the policy debates around eco-design, sustainability or circular economy in the tech space, techUK has a dedicated Environment and Compliance programme. To get involved or learn more, email craig.melson@techuk.org

Author profile:

Craig Melson is a programme manager with techUK.

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Craig Melson

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