Sustainable Product Design for the Electronics & Electrical Industry
As a producer, there are many things you must consider before launching a new product, including its environmental impact. Sustainable design means finding ways to make a product more eco-friendly at every stage of its life. That includes during manufacturing, transport, distribution, and after the consumer no longer has a need for the equipment.
Sustainable product design is becoming more and more relevant in today’s world. Soon, landfills will no longer be an option, and every product and its packaging will need to be recycled or repurposed. Here’s how sustainable design in the electronics and electrical industries can help us reduce e-waste.
Why is Reducing and Recycling e-Waste Important?
As with any new endeavour, understanding why we’re doing it can help us steer our efforts in the right direction. Sustainable design in electronics is not about ticking off boxes for your marketing campaign. It has a real impact that can improve the economy and protect people’s health.
When you throw electronic or electrical equipment away (e-waste), it can leach toxic chemicals into the environment. Most of these products contain metals such as copper, nickel, beryllium, lead, solder, tin, cadmium and mercury, plus flame retardants, glass, and other components that can harm animals and humans.
All e-waste even contains trace amounts of silver, gold, palladium, and other rare earth metals, which are valuable and finite precious resources we shouldn’t just be throwing away. By recycling e-waste, we can recover all the metals inside old computers, phones, etc., to re-use in manufacturing. Plus, building a thriving e-waste recycling industry can help create jobs, reduce the price of materials, and boost our economy overall.
Three Green Electronics Design Strategies to Minimise e-Waste
Recycling alone is not enough to prevent e-waste from becoming a problem. How we design electronics and electrical equipment can have a far greater impact than how we deal with it once it no longer serves us.
Support the Right to Repair
Under the Right to Repair movement, consumers have lobbied for companies to make their products easier to repair at home. What started in the automotive industry has since spread into the electronics sector, gaining the most traction in the US. While repairing electronic devices is relatively simple, many manufacturers prevent people from doing so by enforcing restrictive warranties.
This in turn, increases the rate at which people replace their devices instead of repairing them, which creates unnecessary e-waste.
By supporting the right to repair, you can empower your customers to fix minor damages themselves and extend the lifespan of their devices. Practical ways to support this movement include removing restrictive self-repair clauses from product warranties and offering replacement parts through third-party distributors.
Make Electronics Easier to Recycle
Recycling is only possible when you can separate waste into different material streams, for example, plastic, metal, and glass. E-waste is notoriously difficult to recycle thanks to its mixed-material nature, which is why it has been so freely discarded in the past. This behaviour has created an ecosystem of informal metal recovery, or “urban mining,” led by waste pickers.
People who dismantle e-waste in search of metals often use dangerous informal recycling methods that can harm their health and the surrounding environment. Designing electronics for easy disassembly can help mitigate this problem.
A good way to design for disassembly is to reduce the number of parts overall by finding ways to merge components of the same material. Other strategies include making the battery removable, clearly marking each material for recycling, and using snap fits instead of screws.
Produce Long-Lasting Products
There’s a reason the saying “reduce, reuse, recycle” starts with “reduce” – it’s the first and most important step in managing waste. Reducing the number of electronics and electrical goods on the market automatically reduces the potential for e-waste. Instead of producing cheap products that are designed to be replaced, aim for high-quality materials and build a brand consumers can trust.
Producing durable products also means choosing styles, colours, and designs that don’t go out of fashion. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation calls this “emotional durability” which relates to how long people actually want to use a product, even if it’s in perfectly good condition. Creating long-lasting products also opens opportunities for donation and reuse.
Sustainable Design and South African EPR Laws
In May 2021, the South African government passed EPR (extended producer responsibility) laws for the electronics, electrical, lighting, paper, and packaging industries. Under these laws, electronics producers must do everything they can to prevent their products from becoming e-waste.
Investing in sustainable product design can help producers meet these EPR obligations. It can help you reduce waste, increase recycling rates, and reuse more materials in manufacturing, which can have financial benefits too.
How To Start Making More Eco-Friendly Products
One of the best routes toward sustainable design is through a Producer Responsibility Organisation (PRO). PROs can help you devise a detailed strategy for meeting your EPR obligations and environmental goals, plus assist with funding and administration of your EPR obligations.
eWASA has been working with electrical and electronics producers since 2008. We help our members implement better production practices and manage waste more sustainably. Contact us for more information.