The impact of electronic waste on the environment continues to grow, prompting consumers to make ever-louder demands for sustainably made electronics. Today’s users want the benefits of electronic devices, without sacrificing the welfare of future generations. That’s a tall order for any industry. But it is possible to satisfy the green wishes of consumers—if you keep design for sustainability in mind when creating new products.
But what exactly does this mean?
Design for sustainability (DFS) is an approach to design that considers the environmental, economic, and social impacts of a product throughout its entire lifecycle. The goal of DFS is to reduce the overall environmental impact of a product, from the extraction of raw materials to its disposal. By making greener choices at every stage of a product’s lifecycle, and throughout the supply chain, manufacturers can create a product that passes muster with today’s environmentally conscious consumers. Here are five ways that electronics companies can make their products greener—and more appealing to consumers.
Use Sustainable Materials
Many of the metals, plastics, and chemicals that are used to make electronics are harmful to the environment. So much so that even their disposal can have severe environmental impacts. So one of the first ways to design sustainability into a product is to look for materials that are easy to recycle—or better yet, that can biodegrade on their own.
Plastic is the most visible material of any electronics device. It’s what the consumer sees and touches. And these days, many consumers are alert to plastic pollution, and aware of a slew of grim statistics about the material. They know that the world produces about 400 tons of plastic waste every year, that only about 6% of plastic waste in the U.S. is recycled annually, and that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is twice the size of Texas and contains 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic.
Plastic pollution is a widely recognized problem. So manufacturers that use recycled plastic for their products—or better yet, biodegradable plastic—can win big points with consumers.
Make Products Easy to Repair
In the past, electronics manufacturers have sometimes acted like the point of sale was the end of the product lifecycle. And consumers assumed that once a product stopped working, it was time to throw it out and get a new one. Not anymore. “Disposable” is no longer a selling point, and for many consumers these days, repairability is a critical concern.
This “right to repair” mindset is driven by two factors. First, most Americans believe that if they buy something, they should be able to do whatever they want with it—including fix it. Second, more consumers than ever take satisfaction in knowing that they’re not adding to their local landfill. They’d rather buy replacement parts from the original manufacturer than throw away the product.
Electronics companies can meet this demand by choosing a modular design in which the components are easy to access. Batteries that are easy to replace, for example, are high on consumers’ wish lists, as are repair manuals.
Riding the “right to repair” wave can require a shift in thinking. With this sales model, the company’s relationship to its customers is a long-term one. Like a car dealership, these manufacturers make money on the initial sale, and then garner subsequent revenue by supplying replacement parts and keeping the product in top shape.
Refurbish, Resell, Recycle
One of the best ways to generate goodwill among environmentally conscious customers is to offer a take-back program. Both Apple and Dell allow customers to trade in their old devices when they buy a new one. Consumers get a modest credit to put towards a new device, and the manufacturers get a product they can refurbish and sell at a profit.
But what about products that are too outdated to resell? In that case, it’s time to harvest the usable components. Some manufacturers are now partnering with e-waste recyclers, who open up electronics devices and extract the usable parts. Keyboards, screens, hard drives (wiped clean, of course), processors, memory units, and motherboards can all be given a second life in a new device. Selling these still-useful components can provide a significant revenue stream for the original manufacturer.
But to make the most of this type of recycling, the product needs to be designed up front with sustainability in mind. Making components easy to extract at the end of a product’s lifecycle will cut down on labor costs when it’s time to harvest and resell its components.
Use Design for Sustainability to Optimize Energy Efficiency
Another feature on consumer wish lists is energy efficiency. Consumers typically cite two main reasons for wanting this. On the practical side, electricity is expensive, and devices that gobble up energy may price themselves out of the market. But many consumers also have a more altruistic, if secondary, motive for seeking out energy-efficient devices: They’re aware of the environmental impact of high energy use.
According to a recent article in electronicsforu.com, global electricity demand is projected to increase by 30 percent in the decade ending in 2030. Many experts argue that this level of consumption is unsustainable. The general public is more aware of this than ever before, which is why they’re demanding more energy-efficient products.
To satisfy the consumer demand for more ecological—and economical—devices, today’s electronics manufacturers are choosing energy-efficient components like low-power processors and LED displays. And they’re making sure to choose highly efficient power supplies. Using components like these lets manufacturers rightly claim they’re protecting the environment—and helping customers save on their energy bills.
Use DFS Principles to Reduce Packaging Waste
It’s official, consumers hate hard plastic packaging, so much so that there’s a name for this particular dislike. It’s called wrap rage, and it’s defined as the frustration one feels when trying to open a plastic clamshell or other hard plastic container. In 2006 and 2007, Consumer Reports even issued “Oyster Awards” to companies whose packaging was particularly hard to open. Although the award was meant to be a joke, it highlighted a serious problem: In 2006, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) estimated that injuries from plastic packaging resulted in approximately 6,000 emergency-room visits annually.
These days, however, hard plastic packaging is disliked for another reason as well—it isn’t biodegradable. Consumers have reported feeling guilty when they open a product that arrives “excessively packaged,” and it’s likely that some consumers are shying away from these overwrapped products.
Fortunately, the solution is simple. In the same way that products can be designed with sustainability in mind, so can packaging. This means minimizing the amount of material needed through thoughtful package design, and using customer-pleasing, easy-to-recycle material. Cardboard is always a reliable option. But now, in addition to this old standby, companies can choose from newer, highly biodegradable options like molded pulp, green cell foam, and even mushroom-based materials.
Getting the Most from Design for Sustainability
There are multiple ways to make any electronics device sustainable. It can be designed to use fewer chemicals and plastic. It can be made with recycled components and plastic, or organic versions of the traditional parts. These days, even semiconductors can be made using natural materials. Designing your products for easy reuse and recycling is another way to lower its carbon footprint. Even the type of packaging you use can make a big difference.
Few manufacturers can implement all of these sustainable techniques, but most can apply at least a few. This is why a thorough DFS review is critical. Getting a cost-benefit analysis of your sustainability options will let you know which changes in the manufacturing process will yield the most impact, at the lowest cost.