Green is the colour

3 min read

With the introduction of the Energy Using Products Directive, eco design will have a widespread impact on the electronics industry

Although regulations such as WEEE and RoHS encourage companies to sign up to environmental compliance schemes, Envirowise believes that more needs to be done if the electronics industry is to fully realise its green potential. Jenni Rosser, cleaner design specialist at Envirowise, recently hosted a webinar explaining the importance of environmental awareness within the design stage – eco design. "If you look at a product or packaging and its environmental impact from the design stage, to manufacture, distribution and end of life," Rosser explained, "a lot of the impact can be identified and modified from the design stage." Rosser expressed the need for design teams to evaluate the impact throughout a product's lifestyle. Envirowise is a Government funded agency that offers free advice on resource efficiency and sustainability. The recent webinar examined a number of solutions to the problem of eco efficiency and included an interview with Richard Waterhouse, Intellect's components and manufacturing services manager. Waterhouse explained why environmental design problems should be eliminated early on. "Most features of a product's life are determined at the design stage," he noted. "We recommend looking at the lifecycle approach – taking all aspects of the product and how it will affect the environment throughout its whole life." According to Waterhouse, this involves greater input from designers on how raw materials are sourced and where they are sourced from. "In terms of the manufacturing processes", he continued, "keeping it simple and minimising waste is essential. Then there is packaging; it should be as simple as possible, consistent with the product not getting damaged in transit. Finally, what are you going to do with the product when you have finished with it? Recycle it? Reuse it? It needs to be easily disassembled so components can be reused." Envirowise design advisor Leigh Holloway concurred: "It's safe to say that 80% of cost is set at the design stage, when you decide the form of a product, the function and the materials. That sets an agenda on how it will be processed – its size and weight all have an impact on the environment." Rosser added: "We're starting to get there in terms of environmental awareness. However, companies that procure products offshore and rebrand them are lagging, because of minimal consideration of the environmental impact. While there has been a great deal of media interest in retailers, this also opens opportunities for electronics packaging. It's easier to improve the packaging, rather than the product, but it's only a short term solution. Once again, we need to address the issue at the design stage to focus on the long term solution." XHD How can eco design be implemented realistically? "I think there are probably four things that drive eco design," considered Waterhouse. "Primarily, industry itself. Industries tend to be innovative and competitive, so it suits them to show the best possible products. Secondly, there is legislation – such as the EuP Directive, just coming into force with various regulations. Then there are non government organisations and, finally, I would suggest user pressure has an important part to play – certainly in the public sector – to make environmentally friendly products an important part of procurement policy." The onus on the electronics industry to implement eco design is primarily because of the pervasiveness of the products. "You've only got to look around," noted Waterhouse. "Everyone seems to have a computer, laptop or a mobile phone – homes and offices are full of electronic wizardry. Coupled with that is the fact that a lot of this kind of equipment has a very short lifespan. The turnover of product has resulted in one of the fastest growing waste streams of our age." Holloway added that current regulations, such as the WEEE Directive, legally require recovery and recycling at the end of a product's life. "If that's going to happen," he said, "we need to design a product that is easy and cost effective to take apart. Eco design is just another term for intelligent design. For example, design for short life could initially be seen as counterintuitive in terms of environmental impact – but this isn't so if the product actually has a short life. Don't over design. Don't embed too many materials if you know the product isn't going to last very long. In many ways, it's designing fit for purpose in terms of environmental issues." The underlying problem, agreed Waterhouse, is that too much end of life equipment ends up in landfill. "By addressing the last stage of the lifecycle approach," he suggested, "we need to try and recycle it – or at least try to recover as much as possible from that product. The WEEE Directive is certainly a step in the right direction, but it doesn't fulfil its purpose completely." That said, it is currently under revision both nationally and in Europe. "Eventually," Waterhouse continued, "I believe true accountability for product will only be achieved when we have individual producer responsibility (IPR) – the process whereby the original producer gets back the equipment it manufactured – and, with it, encouragement to design a product in such a way that it can be readily disassembled and reused. The company then gets return on its investment in good eco design." Rosser also supports IPR as a driver to encourage better environmental practise. "The WEEE Directive tried to encourage manufacturers to take more responsibility for their products, but due to the complications of the industry, it proved difficult to retrieve products. When RoHS was introduced, we received a high number of telephone calls from companies asking us what they needed to do to adhere to the regulations.