Product Design and Collection: Keys to Shaping Sustainability
Product design and accessible collection are barriers to recycling. Over the last three decades, recycling programs across the nation have been able to increase participation and collections by successfully raising awareness and educating consumers about recycling and its greater mission. As a result, the United States has almost tripled the amount of materials recycled since 1985, according to the EPA.
While the rise in materials recycled year-over-year is encouraging, a gap still remains.
Product stewardship organizations—which work to minimize health, safety, environmental and social impacts, and maximize the economic benefits of a product and its packaging throughout all lifecycle stages—have helped establish a framework to encourage, and, in fact, simplify the consumers’ ability to recycle, yet only 34.7% of US residents do, the EPA says. This shortfall can be partially attributed to consumer demand for new technologies and materials that do not yet have proven recycling processes. Greater hurdles, though, come from two physical barriers to recycling—product design and accessible collection—the bookends of a product’s lifecycle.
Every product must first be designed, so the first bookend begins with ideation. Whether a modern marvel in aesthetics or a powerhouse in functionality, the product’s design determines how it will fare when disposed. Consider, for example, the new laptop making its debut on the market. It is faster, smarter and more powerful than the model released less than a year ago, and it’s a device that consumers may want to keep for several years. When the rechargeable battery in it reaches the end of its useable life, it is easy to assume that a replacement power source can be purchased and inserted. However, consumers may be surprised to learn that the battery in more and more new devices is not accessible—there is no way to easily remove the existing battery, let alone replace it.
This disconnect in the design process presents an opportunity for product architects to create sleek products with advanced performance standards that are also sustainable. Such a thoughtful first step would increase the laptop’s recycling candidacy.
Can larger, long-lived consumer products—not generally considered as a traditional recyclable—also be redesigned to increase access to all reusable materials? Cars, for example, contain valuable scrap metal that is often the only priority in salvage efforts, despite a wealth of other recyclable material found in them. While about 80% of car parts can be reclaimed 2, most recyclers focus on the monetary benefits of recovering steel. The result? Close to 25% of a car’s weight may be sent to a landfill, including recyclable plasticand motor oil, per Earth911.
The onset of the ideation and product design phase is the only time to ensure that a product is designed so it can be easily recycled, establishing a strong, initial bookend to a truly sustainable product lifecycle. An early commitment to environmentally responsible construction, and deconstruction, increases the chances for “zero landfill impact” and full product recycling. Without it, some potentially harmful materials will make their way into the waste stream. And, components that could be recycled and reused will take up the limited space available in landfills.
Most consumers don’t consider how to recycle a product until it actually reaches the end of its useful life. With the proven effectiveness of single-stream curbside recycling for newspapers, plastic, aluminum cans and glass containers, the majority of people see this convenient solution as a viable option for all recyclables. However, some common household waste items such as fluorescent bulbs, paint and more are not, by law, allowed to be recycled curbside.
The absence of a convenient, at-home recycling alternative may hinder consumers’ participation, particularly for those in rural areas. Because most national recycling programs historically have been created with urban and suburban populations in mind, rural areas are challenged to find any solution at all. The issue of convenience becomes a secondary factor. Without the ability to use curbside pick-up, citizens may be forced to transport recyclables—sometimes hazardous materials—long distances for proper processing or disposal.
To help meet the need, many municipalities across the US have established certain collection facilities to serve as a central recycling hub for urban, suburban and rural residents. These venues, while vital, offer limited collection options, including select operational days and hours.
Consumers with access to environmentally responsible retailers have additional and flexible recycling options. Retail chains—such as Best Buy, The Home Depot, RadioShack, Staples and Lowe’s—offer in-store collection programs for their shoppers. These make it convenient for consumers to recycle items such as small electronics, fluorescent light bulbs, and rechargeable batteries as part of their regular shopping trip. And, these collection programs supplement retailers’ corporate sustainability efforts.
Legislation Bridges the Bookends
The laws governing recycling and take-back programs can help or hinder even the most environmentally responsible recycling and waste collection program. Product stewardship laws, as a case in point, can lack consistency in how they are developed as well as how they are mandated state-to-state. Additionally, most legislation is implemented to address specific materials rather than to provide overarching guidelines for design and collection of all materials.
A lack of unified standards leads to challenges for manufacturers, retailers and consumers. For retailers, complying with multiple, state-specific mandates is confusing and expensive. An international, big-box retailer, for example, might need to comply with numerous laws in different jurisdictions across state and national borders. For this reason, manufacturers will advocate for federal legislation when two or more states adopt product stewardship laws. Federal legislation can remove compliance hurdles that come with multiple state laws.
While each legislative effort raises valid and sometimes daunting challenges, collaboration across similar categories can go a long way to resolve them. For many years, product stewardship organizations have been working independently to educate consumers and legislators, raising awareness about the methods and relevance of recycling individual products. Imagine the enhanced levels of influence that can be achieved by combining forces–advancing shared goals, needs and educational efforts.
Overcoming the Barriers
Obviously product design or redesign must be intentional, with proper end-of-life disposal as a primary consideration to solidify the important initial bookend of a product’s sustainable lifecycle.
While improving product design concepts may seem to be a simple fix (just redesign them), it is a much more complex issue for all stages of the supply chain. Product stewardship organizations—sharing their broad-spectrum perspective on disposal best practices—may help shine a spotlight on this issue. However, consumers and lawmakers may first have to demand change before manufacturers will adopt environmentally responsible design as standard protocol.
Secondly, communication must be improved to optimize the return of a particular product. It’s a two-pronged effort that requires a combination of consumer education and consolidated messaging.
This should start with education, helping all consumers understand the larger environmental benefits of “enhanced product design + recycling”. This has the potential to significantly increase consumer demand for products that have been thoughtfully and intentionally designed with the end in mind. And, an educated user may also insist on improved access to collection options, which means recycling becomes more accessible for everyone.
Working together, recycling and sustainability leaders can consolidate messaging–connecting recycling of a specific material to a broad and universal message–to maximize collections. This type of unified effort can work across product categories to raise awareness about broader issues of accessibility and proper disposal.
Each bookend on its own supports the product lifecycle. But, by incorporating improvements in design and communication, we can help ensure that all aspects of recycling and environmentally responsible product disposal are advanced and preserved.
Carl Smith, CEO and President of Call2Recycle, North America’s first and largest consumer battery stewardship and recycling program. Smith leads the organization in its efforts to help preserve the environment through responsible recycling of batteries. With more than 322 million wireless devices (phones, tablets, and e-readers) in use in the US alone—all powered by rechargeable batteries—recycling both the battery and the device are more important than ever before.
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