Toast to the future

Makers of electrical products seem reluctant to say goodbye to the era of planned obsolescence. Gina Lovett investigates why they have been so slow to embrace cradle-to-cradle thinking, and looks at an innovative approach to devising end-of-life strategies

Cradle-to-cradle thinking has finally hit the mainstream, capturing the attention of Arnold Schwarzenegger and celebrityturned- Green philanthropist Brad Pitt. They are two of the high-profile names backing Yves Béhar’s Green Products Innovation Institute, which launched last month in California. But while the initiative is reaching categories such as furniture and health and beauty, with cradle-tocradle certification of brands such as Herman Miller and Aveda, the electronics and electrical products industry remains in dire need of an eco-efficiency makeover.

It’s easier to close the loops with products like furniture, but with electronics and electrical items, there are so many products and components that businesses tend to shy away [from taking action],’ explains Frank O’Connor, director of the Eco Design Centre Wales. ’Applying the cradle-to-cradle process to all of these would be extremely time-consuming and expensive, and require a massive infrastructure beyond the production and sales processes.’

Another fundamental in the equation is the existing economic paradigm: with companies geared for growth, it is obsolescence and fashionability, not sustainability, that keep the commercial wheels in motion.

Major consumer electronics companies from Philips to Panasonic, under duress from the EU Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive, have begun to adopt design-fordisassembly approaches, making their products easier to sort and recycle. This approach is characterised by features such as low- or no-lead solder, modular electronics boards, snap-fit rather than glued joints, and dismantling instructions.

Other schemes such as Hewlett-Packard’s Extended Life programme, which enables customers to upgrade and service parts belonging to discontinued items, is based on product longevity, though admittedly it’s more of a customer loyalty effort than a huge revenuespinner. However, despite such efforts, and legislation, there continues to be a startling inefficiency in the reprocessing and recovery of materials used in electrical items.

Clare Brass, former Design Council sustainability leader and currently director of social enterprise body the Seed Foundation, points out that unless you have the correct business model and production system from the outset, even a perfectly valid cradle-to-cradle product can be made redundant by a lack of infrastructure and services to deal with it.

She explains, ’You need to link up the bigger picture and see what else there is that might affect the validity of a cradle-to-cradle product. For example, the carpet tile that [carpet company] Interface Flor redesigned can be both recycled and upcycled, but it is really only able to do this because of the leasing business model it has. It recognised a need to create and manage the systems around its product. In other words, you need to actually recycle, not just theoretically recycle.’

Such concerns have driven Royal College of Art innovation design engineering trio Rich Gilbert, Adam Paterson and Matthew Laws to explore how this might work. Their second-year project, Design Out Waste – now the founding philosophy for a forthcoming company – took the ubiquitous toaster as a starting point.

’The toaster highlights so many of the problems with waste and use of materials. Larger-scale items – like engines – can selfmanage, but it’s the smaller items that end up getting thrown in the bin,’ says Laws. The trio’s answer was three end-of-life system strategies – the Realist, the Pragmatist and the Optimist – incorporated into three toaster prototypes.

The Realist is designed as a fast-selling mass-market item, with a limited life-span. Driven by the need for consumer convenience, at the end of its consumer-life the Realist will be conventionally recycled by being taken to a materials recovery facility for dry recyclables.

’Our existing MRF infrastructures have the capabilities to stockpile and sort the products, in order to eventually return them to their original manufacturers’ nearest reprocessing facilities,’ explains Gilbert. The Realist’s pop-apart structure, dismantled using the trio’s patent-pending rapid disassembly technology, allows the manufacturer to separate and sort components with minimal labour cost, so that material value is maintained and can be reprocessed anew, avoiding waste and minimising downcycling.

The Pragmatist, based on a repair and lifeextension strategy, has a modular toasting slot system held together magnetically. When one slot breaks, it can be posted back to the manufacturer, who repairs it for a small cost. The remaining slots function as normal.

’Close relationships with sub-component suppliers make it possible to manage the materials in the most environmental and economic way. Some are cleaned, some are refurbished and others are recycled,’ says Gilbert.

But perhaps the most radical of the strategies is the Optimist toaster, designed to last for life. The longevity is achieved mainly through the materials choice, Gilbert says. Cast aluminium can be reprocessed indefinitely without degrading. The heavily engineered toaster – with its debossed ’date of birth’ and rounds-of-toast tracker – aims to transcend novelty and build a user relationship that can extend down the generations. ’Part of the beauty of an older object is knowing the details of its past,’ he says.

Despite the celebrity embracing of cradle-tocradle, lifelong commitment to the Optimist might still be a struggle – at least for the fickle fashionistas.

Waste not, want not…

  • The EU Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive obliges manufacturers to meet the cost of managing their share of this burgeoning waste stream. The more difficult it is for the waste management companies to disassemble and recycle manufacturers’ products, the more the manufacturers pay – a concept known as ’individual producer responsibility’
  • According to the Royal Society of Arts microsite, the break-even point – the point at which it is environmentally better for the consumer to buy a new product rather than keep an old one – for mobile phones works out around seven years, but the average person changes theirs every 11 months The cradle-to-cradle framework, developed in 1995 by architect William McDonough and chemist Dr Michael Braungart, provides a blueprint for redesigning products and ingredients, enabling them to become the raw materials for new goods and services
  • Downcycling occurs when proprietary polymers, such as those manufactured by Dupont and Exxon Mobil, are mixed. Degradation of the material happens even if the plastics are the same type, compounding the complexity of recycling
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