Design your product’s funeral

A new EU directive will make environmentally friendly product design compulsory

The life of the product designer is set to get even tougher as the European Union introduces more legislation. But you can’t really quibble with this one – it’s environmental. It certainly makes sense, but it is definitely going to tie our hands even more when it comes to product design.

Do you care about protecting the environment? I am sure you would say ‘yes’. Have you ever upgraded your mobile phone or PC? No doubt you have the very latest, up-to-date WAP phone, or palm top. But what did you do with the old one? Chucked it in the bin?

It is estimated that you alone produce 4kg of waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) every year. In Europe that mounts up to 1.5m tonnes per year. Now throw that straight into your bin and you can be sure waste electrical and electronic equipment is creating a huge problem.

But whose problem is it? According to the European Union, product designers are going to have to bear the brunt of this one. Because of its ‘hazardous content’, electrical and electronic equipment causes major environmental problems during the waste management phase if it is not properly pre-treated at the assembly stage. Up to 90 per cent of WEEE – in other words mobile phones, smoke detectors, toy train sets, hair dryers, fridges, microwaves, the list is endless – find their way directly into landfill sites and incinerators.

By 2004, a new EU directive will come into force that will require businesses involved in the production of electrical and electronic equipment to include waste management considerations into the design and production of their equipment. This means that we will have to change the way we design products to use easily recyclable and recoverable materials, control hazardous substances used in their manufacture, and moreover use common component and material coding standards.

One analogy made is that the consumer is to be considered as only a temporary custodian of the product’s ‘useful life’, whereas the producer is the guardian of the product from ‘birth to death’.

The implications for the design process are quite profound. To date, most producers and designers have focused their efforts on perfecting the efficient assembly and production of their products. This emphasis has led to products that are efficient to manufacture, but that are almost impossible to strip down and dispose of safely.

Measures already introduced go some way to restricting the use of the most environmentally problematic substances contained within components such as heavy metals (mercury, lead, cadmium and chromium), halogenated substances, such as chlorofluorocarbons, polychlorinated biphenyls, polyvinyl chloride and brominated flame retardants, as well as asbestos and arsenic within the product’s manufacturing process.

However, the WEEE directive takes a further step forward and puts the onus squarely on the producer to take active steps to limit environmentally loaded components. Furthermore, it requires producers to determine the method of safe disposal and recovery of the entire product. This fundamentally affects the way products are designed.

Choice of materials has always been an issue, particularly in industries that are highly regulated, such as the aerospace industry. With a raft of legislation to contend with, from electrical safety, flammability and toxic smoke to name only some, designers are already hard pressed to meet stringent standards. Adding the WEEE directive to this melting pot can almost eliminate all choice in components and materials.

And if that is not enough, our primary customer – the manufacturer – wants fast production and low-cost components. A simple, but significant example, is that of clip features for product enclosures. Clips speed up production and keep users from getting the screwdriver out to dismantle the product, but, of course, they make recovery and recycling of internal components difficult too.

At present, there are ten European countries that have legislation on recycling of electrical and electronic equipment. The WEEE directive will harmonise the European approach and ensure that there is no distortion of the internal market with the same rules in each country. On the positive side, it is estimated that up to 10 500 jobs will be created in the recycling industry alone to deal with the growing mountain of WEEE. Product designers must consider how their products can be stripped, crushed, melted and recycled: fundamentally designing a funeral for your product before its birth.

The cost may rise, but don’t worry because the marketers will soon put a spin on it. Their message will be strong and appealing to the image conscious. I can just see the next advertising campaign – environmentally friendly WAP phones, recyclable microwaves. So you had better start thinking ‘cradle to grave’, before your products come back to haunt you.

The WEEE Directive

Based on the ‘polluter pays’ principle, Article 174 of the European Community Treaty

It says only producers can develop approaches to the design of their products to ensure maximum product life and the best methods of disposal

At the moment there is hardly any economic incentive for the producer to take waste management, in particular recycling aspects, into consideration at the design stage

Specialised recyclers have confirmed the relevance of improved design for the recycling of electrical equipment

In order to reduce costs for producers, a transition period of five years after entry into force of the directive is granted

Producers of products with longer lifetimes need to address the problem of historical waste

For further information about the WEEE directive go to:

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