In 2020, the volume of electronic waste generated was 55.5 million metric tons (Statista, 2020) and it is estimated that this number will double by 2030 (The Conversation, 2020). In 2019, only 17.4% of e-waste was formally collected and recycled (The Conversation, 2020). What happened with the remainder is not clear. E-waste is a growing problem for the tech industry and a contributor to climate change.
The growing demand for electronic devices and their decreasing life cycles make sustainability and design for recycling more important than ever. Luckily there are changes that can be made now. Businesses must integrate sustainable practices now or risk falling behind. Using pre-existing collected data from life cycle assessment databases, designers, engineers, manufacturing experts and purchasing agents can exponentially improve a product’s environmental footprint before manufacturing even begins.
The importance of sustainability and design for recycling in manufacturing
We are living in an ever-changing technological world. There is a growing need for 5G, integrated software, and cloud platforms, all of which use extensive resources. The constant transformation and redevelopment of connected devices are creating a growing pile of tech waste that traditional e-waste recycling cannot keep up with.
Tech industry legislation, like imposed restrictions and fees, is driving change, but it is not enough. Educating the end-user in proper e-waste recycling practices, as well as incentives for recycling, like buyback policies, can do more.
“People once bought cars for performance, camshafts, horsepower, and safety. Today they buy the possibility of being part of a greater vision and environmental values are key,” said Håkan Samuelsson, CEO of Volvo Cars. Customers are no longer simply buying a product — they’re buying trust in company values. A forward-thinking, environmentally sustainable company will attract more customers and retain higher customer loyalty.
Benefits of sustainability in manufacturing
According to a 2019 survey, 81% of consumers are planning to buy more environmentally-friendly products over the next five years, and 50% of consumers are willing to pay more for a product that was designed to be reused or recycled. In addition to growing interest in environmental manufacturing costs and energy consumption among end-consumers, investors are also looking for sustainable practices in the companies in which they invest. BCG Global Asset Management found that “in 2019, many asset managers boosted their data, research and analytics capabilities on Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) topics.”
The future of manufacturing is in sustainable practices. Companies need a clear understanding of how their business impacts the environment. “Policy goals, consumer demands, and supplier options are changing, and every change will impact the business,” said Reinout Heijungs, associate professor in the Department of Operations Analytics at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. “Only by exploring new directions and aiming for resilience can companies survive.” Companies that have not already implemented sustainable business practices in manufacturing must do so now, or risk falling behind.
Many companies, like Volvo Cars (above), are changing the way their businesses work. It can start small, like Adidas, which offers a buyback program to recycle their old shoes into new ones. Or it can be on a much larger scale, like Ørsted, which has completely changed the core of their business from a coal-intensive utility company to an almost entirely renewable energy power provider, landing them the top seat on the 2020 Global 100 list. Businesses can use their sustainable practices to stand out from the rest, because not only does legislation demand it, consumers do as well.
How can sustainable manufacturing practices already be implemented?
Large changes, like a complete overhaul of the core of a business, can seem overwhelming. However, there are many smaller-scale sustainable manufacturing practices that are actionable today.
- Consider the entire supply chain and close the loop through industrial symbiosis.
- Products can be designed using recyclable, renewable, and reusable materials.
- Design products and parts that can be easily separated and reassembled, or disassembled for faster processing for recycling.
- Ensure little or no waste by upcycling by-products and waste materials into new products or materials to reduce the industry’s environmental footprint.
- Optimize recycling and waste management by improving recycling routes, keeping track of waste, and preventing illegal export of waste.
By rethinking the life cycle of a product to include these practices when applicable, manufacturing companies can already impact their sustainability practices. The effects of design for recycling can even feedback into the company’s own supply chain, creating shorter loops for supply acquisition and lessening environmental impacts. These changes can accelerate sustainability efforts because they alter outcomes before manufacturing even begins.
LCA capabilities in sustainability and design for recycling
Life cycle assessment (LCA) databases already estimate the environmental impact of most business activities, from sourcing raw materials to delivery of the final product. However, traditional applications of LCA are complex and the number of people who know how to accurately interpret the data is few. Therefore, most companies have limited the use of LCA to special projects or annual reports. Both uses only give insight into the environmental impact after it has already taken place.
Looking at what’s already happened can’t be the best way to use a powerful tool like LCA. What if there was an easier way to calculate a product’s environmental footprint in the design phase? To know which design would use less harmful chemicals? Fewer materials? Or choose a supplier with lower carbon output?
The answers to these questions lead the way for a sustainable manufacturing business — and they’re all already available. LCA data can be integrated into 3D computer models used in product development, which are known as virtual twins. Virtual twins make LCA data insights instant, empowering designers, engineers, and others who use it to positively influence their company’s environmental footprint and build a more sustainable future.
E-waste will continue to be a problem for the tech industry and a contributor to climate change until significant changes in the way products are designed and manufactured are implemented. However, sustainable business practices can lead to company sustainability. By integrating small-scale sustainable practices or using technology like virtual twins, companies can stand out to customers and investors in an ever increasingly competitive market.
Would you like to learn more about how to make your business more innovative and adaptable to the green shift?