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Consumers are increasingly insisting on products with greater sustainability and recyclability values. As the ‘linear economy’ transforms into a ‘circular economy’, how can businesses ensure their products are sustainable and yet remain commercially viable and compliant with market regulations?

Engineer

Linear vs. Circular

‘Make, use, dispose’ – for as long as electrical and electronic products have been created, this has been the progression. This is the ‘linear economy’ model. It has the major disadvantage of being resource inefficient, with high levels of raw material usage and waste produced when disposed at end-of-life.

A better way may be to make products where the materials, components, and even the products themselves can be reused or repurposed. In a ‘circular economy’, resources are utilized for as long as possible. Designing for reuse, recovery and/or recycling is the focus. In a perfect world, a product could be used forever but, as this is not feasible, the next best thing is to create products that can easily be restored or where the materials may be recycled or are durable and can be reused.

The circular economy business model is intent on:

  • Minimizing the use of raw materials
  • Maximizing the useful life of materials and other resources through resource recovery
  • Minimizing the waste generated at the end-of-life of a product and its packaging

The key is to manufacture products that adhere to the principles of a circular economy – sustainability, renewability and reusability. This will improve waste management by ensuring that all parts can be repurposed, limiting waste and reducing additions to landfill. The focus is on resource recovery.

To successfully work towards the ideas of the circular economy, design engineers, in conjunction with purchasing/procurement, need to understand the materials, and the regulations put in place in relation to these materials, in order to protect the environment. The supply chain therefore becomes a vital part of the process. Manufacturers need to be able to source materials that comply with published regulations, and which do not originate from violent regions or areas where human employment practices fail to meet internationally accepted standards.

Problems: Financial vs. Environmental

While the benefits of developing a circular product life cycle are obvious, the costs may be unknown and could negatively impact the manufacturer. For example, there may be times when the product’s construction needs to be more robust, or the raw materials may be environmentally unfriendly. These factors may be against the principles of renewable, reusable and recyclable. However, the resulting product may have a longer life cycle, which will ultimately help with waste disposal and landfill issues.

In certain areas of the world, such as the European Union, regulations have been published that promote the principles of a circular economy. Many such laws relate to the use of plastics, but these may be the beginning of a more comprehensive set of regulations.

Making It Work

Designers working towards a circular economic concept need to be certain their products comply with all relevant legislations. The products may also need to be designed in a way that makes them easy to disassemble for reuse or material recovery.

This takes planning, meaning the philosophy of the circular economy model has be introduced at the very start of the design process. For example, raw materials have to be considered in relation to compliance and technical ability at the start and not the end of the design process. Supply chains also need to be robust in their ability to procure and supply materials and products that meet these design criteria.

SGS Solutions

SGS understands the applicable regulations and can assist manufacturers of electrical and electronic products with evaluation and testing. In addition, with a global network of specialist laboratories able to provide assessment capabilities to the supply chain, SGS is ideally positioned to help manufacturers meet the design and construction criteria for the circular economy model.

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For more information, please contact:

David Linder
Chemistry & RSTS Technical Manager
+1 973 461 7901