Living in a material e-world

Environmental, cost and supply pressures are bringing about a shift in design priorities to avoid expensive waste of materials, notably in the electronics sector, as Jim McClelland reports


Gold, silver and platinum will be among precious metals worth £1.5 billion purchased unwittingly in the UK between now and 2020. This hoard of hidden treasure will be scattered throughout ten million tonnes of electronic products bought by organisations, companies and private individuals alike.

Electronic, digital and mobile technologies are big business. The marketplace is competitive, evolving constantly and rapidly. Sales are strong, not least because products date and break.

As a result, product and material recovery, recycling and reuse is also an area of rising concern – and opportunity. Waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) is now the fastest growing waste stream worldwide, with an estimated two million tonnes discarded in the UK every year.

In response, new European Union WEEE regulations coming into force this year seek to encourage producers to consider the environment at disposal and end of life, designing out waste and adopting cradle-to-cradle (C2C) responsibility for products.

What will be the effect of these legislative changes? The new obligations carry potential implications for all stakeholders and lifecycle stages, from design, though manufacture, to consumption and finally recovery. How will the market react?

“The majority of rethinking of e-waste is driven by clear and consistent regulatory requirements, primarily emanating from the European Commission,” explains Will Schreiber, co-author of the WRAP report Reducing the environmental and cost impacts of electrical products, and associate director at Best Foot Forward.

“Whether televisions or washing machines, the overall trend in the electrical sector has been to make products less repairable and have shorter lifetimes,” he says. “The changes that we see in response to legislation, however, are starting to have an effect on the business models some companies are developing by reducing hazardous substances, offering longer warranty periods or providing buy-back options.”

With strong government leadership, responsible manufacturers and increasing public awareness that recycling is good, but waste prevention better, we can expect to see a shift in direction in the next decade or so

This emerging trend will ask questions of product designers, a community that has been relatively slow to respond to the waste issue creeping up the corporate and regulatory agenda, according to designer and head of sustainability at Seymourpowell Chris Sherwin.

“I don’t think designers have considered the waste and disposal stages of products anywhere near as much as they should,” he says. “Most of what we do in design processes is to become the champion of the consumer experience. The main problem with that is it misses off the front and especially the back-end aspects. We need a broader, more holistic approach.”

The conditions for change are gradually becoming manifest in electronics markets, with a combination of contributory factors in evidence, he says. “It is no secret that carbon/energy has been the main driver for the electronics sector, but companies are turning more to waste and resource consumption, driven by concepts like C2C, the circular economy, rising materials costs, better recycling and recovery infrastructure. It seems more of a priority in design now.”

Momentum in waste markets still seems more push than pull though, as Mr Schreiber describes the dynamic. “Unlike energy consumption, which has direct consumer benefits and therefore demand, material control and optimisation are mostly driven by cost savings and regulations for critical raw materials, such as rare earths, Dodd-Frank [regulated] conflict minerals,” he says. “The biggest proponents of change have been the brands themselves setting a clear strategy. The problem is that few organisations have actually looked at waste as a business opportunity rather than a burden.”

This limited response may well be explained in part by the weak signals being received in general from a customer base typically still stuck in consumer mode, as Adam Read, practice director – waste management and resource efficiency, at Ricardo-AEA, explains: “Unfortunately, the drive of consumerism is a little like the Titanic – difficult to slow, almost impossible to divert and ultimately destined for failure. Although consumers may not be changing on their own, with strong government leadership, responsible manufacturers and increasing public awareness that recycling is good, but waste prevention better, we can expect to see a shift in direction in the next decade or so.”

Are we nearing a tipping point? Sophie Thomas, co-director of design at the RSA and one of the founders of the Great Recovery Project, reimagining products and material flow cycles, seems to think so. She counsels though that things could yet go one of two ways, with the waste sector “either on the cusp of something great or the edge of a cliff”.

Dr Read concludes that breaking traditional take-make-waste paradigms depends on a clear business case emerging on the supply-side and a circle more material than virtuous. “Ultimately, we are facing significant resource risks in the electrical products world, from rare-earth metals in particular, so price will continue to increase as scarcity worsens,” he says. “This will drive innovation in product design and processing, including more closed-loop solutions where electrical products are never owned, just leased/rented from manufacturers, thus enabling them to control the supply of increasingly valuable materials.”

For all the virtual community and cloud computing advantages afforded us by the latest electronic and mobile technology, the means to these online ends are still very much grounded in physical commodities and mineral properties. Paradoxical as it might seem, we are living in a material e-world.