Sustainable product design: How electronics can become circular


Sustainable product design

Sustainable product design is the first step towards building a circular economy. Circular Online dives into how the electronics sector – from iPhones to white goods – can transition toward circularity by innovating how products are designed.

Every part of a product should be a resource that has value. To transition to a circular economy, products need to be designed so these resources can be recovered and extracted as easily to recirculate at their highest value.

Sounds sensible, right? So, why aren’t we moving fast enough when it comes to electronics, where the resources involved are at a particularly high value.

Trojan Electronics’ report “The rise of refurbished electronics: exploring consumer attitudes” found that only 17% of e-waste is recycled globally and the UK is the second highest e-waste producer in the world. It also projects that by 2030 e-waste will increase by as much as 30%.

Why aren’t we moving fast enough when it comes to electronics?

Waste from Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) is an increasingly complicated and challenging waste stream. We say “waste” but in reality it isn’t waste at all. The challenges in this area aren’t only because of the materials involved. Consumer behaviour and existing infrastructure are also contributing factors as to why WEEE is an environmental headache.

So, what’s the deal with electronics, from smartphones to microwaves? Is it how sustainable the product design is or isn’t, consumers’ awareness and willingness regarding recycling, or does the government need to incentivise a circular economy for electronics through policy?

What’s the problem with the design of electronics?


James Rigg, CEO of Trojan Electronics, believes that there is broad consumer demand for refurbished electronic products.

“A key thing that came out of our report was that consumers are ahead of manufacturers. Consumers genuinely want to purchase a refurbished product that is good quality and they feel confident in doing so.

“It’s the manufacturers that are holding back how circular designs are and the access people have to buying refurbished products.”

64% of people say that they have bought a refurbished or repaired electrical item in the past, according to Trojan’s report. 14% have purchased refurbished smartphones, 12% purchased repaired white goods and 9% bought a refurbished laptop or tablet. 

iPhoneRigg told Circular Online that while some white goods manufacturers are designing their products to be repaired, the “complete opposite” is happening with mobile phones and tablets.

“Mobile phones and tablets are designed not to be repaired easily or only to be repaired by the manufacturer at a high expense,” Rigg said.

“Since the iPhone 10 onwards, Apple has increasingly made it harder and harder to interchange parts. If you take an iPhone 12 or 13 and you change a screen from one device to another, it won’t work.

Rigg believes Apple designs its products so that they go obsolete as software develops over time, won’t allow parts to be exchanged and restricts access to repair parts.

In 2021, nearly 20% of all material used in Apple products were recycled, the highest-ever use of recycled content, the company said.

Last year, Apple launched its Self Service Repair store in Europe where customers can purchase genuine Apple parts and tools. Apple says the store allows consumers to perform most of the “common repairs” on iPhone 12 and iPhone 13.

The Self-Service Repair Store provides access to over 200 individual parts and tools, as well as repair manuals.

However, Rigg highlighted what he sees as several problems with Apple’s repair services. An iPhone 12 Display Bundle costs £318.80 – Rigg said this isn’t cheap and the repair process isn’t simple.

“This price point is viable for products that are one or two years old,” Rigg said. “However, for four or five-year-old devices, it’s not. It’s not worth it. So, that means the product is going to go to waste.

Since the iPhone 10 onwards, Apple has increasingly made it harder and harder to interchange parts.

“All those component parts that could be reused are going to waste because of the problems with the products’ designs.”

Rigg told us that Apple should design their products to be repaired and make them compatible with third-party components.

The ease with which an electronic product can be repaired is decided at the design stage. While Apple has made it easier for itself to recover and reuse materials from devices, Rigg cited the amount of glue used in the design of iPhones as a problem and a sign that the products aren’t designed to be repaired.

So, how can a product’s design be truly sustainable?

Writing in Circular Online, Lucy Hughes founder of MarinaTex and previous winner of The James Dyson Award, said if designers can embrace a regenerative, long-term mindset, society can move towards a more resilient and sustainable future where products and solutions are designed to minimise harm and actively restore and replenish the world’s natural resources.

What is sustainable product design?

Product design

To be sustainable, designers should consider the durability of their products, be efficient with resources and ensure the product’s materials can be reused or recycled to contribute towards transitioning to a circular economy.

“If we really understood the value and future need of the raw materials in electronic goods we would never design them to be single-use,” Sophie Thomas, Useful Projects’ director of circular design and founding director of Thomas.Matthews, told Circular Online.

Thomas said that a lack of knowledge and expertise in understanding end-of-life for products and materials from electronic companies leads to unrecoverable and locked-in value that resource managers cannot extract and therefore lose.

Take back schemes help brands understand the end-of-life of their products.

“New materials come onto market with no thought from the designers as to how to take it back into the system – and putting 100% recyclable is not the answer by the way,” Thomas said.

“Take back schemes help brands understand the end-of-life of their products and how they can extract the materials they need to use again. They also allow for design to iterate and improve recoverability.

“Apple’s take back scheme has helped them to start recovering and recycling (and using). They have also rethought the glue that holds in the battery in their products amongst other things. However, it has had less impact on the global WEEE stream and bigger systems and strategies need to be done.”

circular-economyEmily Marsh, Design Researcher at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, told us: “In a circular economy, systems are designed to eliminate waste, circulate products and materials and regenerate nature.

“In practice, it means making choices that ensure that products are not only fit to be used and reused for as long as possible but also that the processes, services and systems around them enable products to circulate; for example, through repair and refurbishment, reverse logistics and material recovery.”

Marsh highlighted that 45% of global greenhouse gas emissions come from how society makes and uses things and “mountains of materials” are ending up in landfill – 53.6 million metric tonnes (Mt) of electronic waste was generated worldwide in 2019 according to the UN.

“While design plays a critical role in shaping and sustaining these broken systems, it can also play a pivotal part in enabling more effective systems that work long term for society, business and nature,” Marsh said.

We asked Marsh what the Ellen MacArthur Foundation sees as the main sustainability problems with the current design of mobile phones.

Customers are incentivised to upgrade to newer models, at the same time software for older devices is no longer supported by manufacturers.

“Mobile phones are complex products, with many components made of finite materials, used for a relatively short period of time. After a couple of years, outdated devices are discarded, not only losing precious materials from the economy but also embedded energy, labour and value.

“Customers are incentivised to upgrade to newer models, at the same time software for older devices is no longer supported by manufacturers. Further, these linear systems pose significant environmental and health impacts with exposure to hazardous substances in the mining, manufacturing and disposal of these materials,” Marsh explained.

Inspiring behaviour change around electronics


The “key challenge” for phone companies trying to design their products for a circular economy is how effectively they can recover materials, the Executive Director of Material Focus, Scott Butler, suggested to us.

“A key issue is having clarity on what we mean by circularity. Are we looking for circular products that can be regularly repaired, rebooted and upgraded?” Butler asked. 

“Or are we looking for the circular use of the materials that the products are made of? That has a huge bearing on the type of take back systems we need to put in place and the skill sets needed to deliver circularity. 

HypnoCat: the face of the Recycle Your Electricals campaign.

“And is the circularity vision the same for all types of tech? The best circular objectives for smartphones may not be the same as those for a cheap toaster or a charging cable, for example.”

Recycle Your Electricals is a campaign led by Material Focus. To make it easier for people to reuse and recycle unwanted electricals, the campaign has launched a Recycling Locator which shows people where their nearest location is to recycle their electricals.

Butler argued that companies can design a product that’s easily fixable and modular with interchangeable components but they still need to be able to recover the product.

“If you cannot get that product back in isolation or cumulatively today, how do you accrue the environmental and cost benefits?

We have a phrase within our organisation: True Life.

“We have a phrase within our organisation: True Life, which basically means what’s really happening with a product and how do people dispose of equipment when it’s broken or what they do when it’s broken? And how are they looking to fix it? Repair it and/or recycle it, or throw it away in the bin.

“How do you capture that benefit? Because you can invest a lot but if you can’t capture that benefit at the product’s end-of-life then that investment doesn’t seem like great value for money.”

There’s a financial incentive for tech companies to implement take-back schemes. Being able to recover valuable, finite resources and keep them in circulation reduces overall costs. However, Butler feels electronics companies must do more to inspire positive behaviours from consumers.

Old phones“We need to put more prescriptive responsibilities on stakeholders. We need more people talking about selling, donating, repairing and recycling electricals,” Butler said. “We need it to feel normal. Everybody’s doing it, so therefore we should all do it. It feeds itself. 

“You don’t always need regulation to fix a problem. We need to be genuinely committed as the electronics industry, and that’s from producers through to through to retailers.

“There are practical steps businesses can take now that don’t require regular regulations and it means you’re stepping up, making it easier, embedding it into your customer messaging, embedding it into your customer experience.”

We need to be genuinely committed as the electronics industry, and that’s from producers through to through to retailers.

Trojan Electronics’ CEO James Rigg believes an effective way of embedding these behaviours in the customer experience is for packaging to highlight a product’s recyclability and repairability.

“Now, when you buy a mobile phone, the packaging is beautiful. You’re buying into a tribe who love the brand and the product. This is something that you belong to. It makes you feel good inside. The packaging doesn’t tell you how many items were used, repaired or recycled to create the product.

“There should be a percentage which lets consumers know how much of the product can be fixed by a local repairer or how many reusable parts were used to make the product.”

Emily Marsh, Design Researcher at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, told Circular Online that governments at a national level and local authorities have an important role to play in setting the direction of travel and driving investment in circular innovation.

“Policy levers can incentivise circular product design choices, including repair and reuse, while at the same time helping to level the playing field for businesses.”

Policy levers can incentivise circular product design choices, including repair and reuse.

Marsh cited as examples tax breaks on repair, landfill and incineration taxes, Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) schemes and using public procurement to develop markets for circular products.

“Governments can also directly invest in the innovation, infrastructure and skills needed for the circular economy transition,” Marsh said.

“By responding to public policy consultations, businesses and designers have the opportunity to influence policies that are relevant to them, such as the European Commission’s proposed Ecodesign for Sustainable Products Regulation which will set legally binding, minimum product criteria in line with a circular economy throughout the EU.

“The Foundation’s Universal Circular Economy Policy Goals provide a framework for national governments, cities and businesses to accelerate the transition.”

Circular economy product design


The Ellen MacArthur Foundation believes for organisations to achieve their circular economy ambitions, they need to leverage design systemically.

From ambition to action: An adaptive strategy for circular design identifies six design leverage points used to unlock the potential of circular design within organisations,” Marsh said. “To move from niche to norm, circular design requires businesses to imagine, question and act systemically. Whether that be through surfacing unexpected opportunities for circular collaborations or developing circular design guidelines.

“The adaptive strategy brings together the experiences of circular design leaders already embarking on the frequently iterative journey to inspire effective system-level interventions and embed circular design into daily practice. 

To move from niche to norm, circular design requires businesses to imagine, question and act systemically.

“The framework acts as a compass for individuals, design teams, and organisations to map their activities holistically and take action toward their vision of a circular economy.”

The ideal outcome for sustainable product design is a product where no materials go to waste. A product that is easy to recover and reuse materials from. This is the only way an industry will be able to transition to a circular economy.

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