ANALYSIS: The great e-waste exorcism experiment

The launch of a washable keyboard is the latest sign that electronic equipment manufacturers are looking to stretch their producer responsibility obligations out towards the conceptual end of product design.

Logitech’s latest marvel, which comes equipped with multiple drainage holes, may be subliminally aimed at ‘dirty typists’ but actually, it sends out a great waste prevention message – one of product durability.

Globally, e-waste is now one of the fastest-growing sectors by volume within the waste industry and brand leaders are coming under increasing pressure to not just demonstrate end-of-life accountability for the products they produce, but to build in more ecological thought at the design stage.

Last month recommendations were submitted to the Government to introduce individual producer responsibility (IPR) in the UK through an incentive scheme. This would entice manufacturers to design electrical and electronic goods that are not just easier to reuse or recycle, but that last longer as well.

The timing of IPR could be perfect as legislative preparations begin for the WEEE Directive recast due to come into force next year. It’s a move HP’s UK&I environmental manager Bruno Zago would welcome – he feels the opportunities created by IPR could be huge as by getting own-brand products back, producers can start to close the loop on their manufacturing and supply processes.

Zago points to a range of IPR systems in place across the world. These include a ‘return share’ scheme which involves calculating producer responsibility based on the share of each producer’s products returning from the market.

“This encourages producers to design products that last longer and penalises producers who put ‘throw away’ electronic goods on the market,” he told edie.

Likewise in France a ‘bonus malus’ system operates whereby a product’s recycling fee is determined according to how well designed it is, with more durable goods attracting a smaller charge.

And as product durability becomes a valued performance indicator for brand reputation, so does material optimisation. It’s where the most exciting designer thinking is happening right now.

Eco-designer Mark Shayler heads up his own consultancy Tickety Boo and argues that manufacturers don’t just need to design products that last longer, but that can be delivered as a service.

“We need to redesign many business models so that businesses can still make money from things that last longer. I work with companies on eco-design and the benefits are massive,” he told edie.

According to Shayler, this lifecycle thinking – building in design that reduces impacts on raw materials, manufacture, distribution, use and disposal – is essential if we are to develop better products.

“I help my clients with this kind of challenge,” he said. “As part of the process that I use with them we talk about great products and we list the attributes they like about those products – 90% of them use words like reliability, durability, built-to-last, upgradable, quality and dependable.”

Sony has neatly cottoned onto this theme with its Wandular concept which paints a future scenario whereby consumers express brand loyalty through their emotional attachment to a single-use gadget or device that would evolve with them over a lifetime.

Engage by Design’s founder Rodrigo Bautisa who was instrumental in leading the project told edie that it was about connecting with products in a more meaningful way.

“We need to make things that have a longer life. For this, they need to be multi-functional, modular, beautiful and personalised,” he observed.

Taking producer responsibility to such heights is clearly demonstrating business model innovation. It has already become a powerful brand name differentiator. The trick for companies going forward is how to make it financially viable in the long-term.

Maxine Perella

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie