Sustainable Electronics: Best Practices for Circular Design


Sustainable Electronics: Best Practices for Circular Design


Wouldn’t it be nice if we could design out waste and pollution to create a world without waste to preserve our planet? In just one hour an estimated 900 metric tons of plastic waste enters our oceans – the mass of nearly 600 cars. In the long term, this has severe negative impacts on marine life and the quality of our oceans and waterways.

Plastic is just one example but the magnitude of the issue becomes more clear when looking at the bigger picture of distributed products and their material streams. Annually approximately 50 million tonnes of electronic waste (e-waste) is produced with only 20 percent being formally recycled. At this rate, this would make the amount of e-waste more than double by 2050 to 120 million tonnes annually.

The good news is more are taking action to increase the sustainability of their products. Together consumers, designers, investors, manufacturers, traders, miners, raw material producers, policymakers, and others need to work together to replace the linear economy with a circular one and it starts with considerations for circular design.

As experts in resource management and materials recovery, Sims Lifecycle Services put together a list of basic best practices for designing products for sustainability.

Use environmentally sustainable materials.

Waste collection trends have shown an increase in smaller, lighter electronics. Most of these smaller electronics are made using plastic containing the brominated flame retardant (BFR) chemical compound. BFRs help reduces the flammability of heat generated from electronic devices. This type of plastic has limited-to-no recyclability and is a perfect example of what product design experts are facing today: The choice between circular design and functionality.

Where these and other common pollutants, such as mercury lamps, batteries, and toners, have to be used, manufacturers should label their products appropriately to notify recyclers of their presence and manufacture them into the products to enable simple separation. Even better if they can be marked out with colors or RFID codes or designed as cartridge components that can click in and out.

Aluminum, gold, and steel are materials known for their recyclability. These materials are great for combining functionality with high levels of usability, which may be a reason they are used in so many products. Other materials can be analyzed for their recyclability. By working with an ITAD company at the product design level you can assess your product’s recyclability at the point of launch and include it in your product marketing.

Create more opportunities for reuse/resale.

The Consumer Electronics Association estimates the average life of a smartphone to be 4.7 years but globally users replace their phones on average every 21 months. Supportive actions to incentivize reuse and extend the life of these devices are important to make use of older working devices until they reach their end-of-life. This helps these digital devices get into the hands of people who need them and helps us get the most out of equipment that is still in working condition.

According to Science Direct, 62-70 percent of the total energy used during the lifecycle of a laptop is used during its manufacturing. Extending the lifespan of the units by several years can offset the significant footprint of the production of a new unit. Therefore, product designers should make sure they are creating a long-lasting product with repairability in mind.

The EU’s new Circular Economy Action Plan is one that is adopting initiatives to aim to keep resources in the EU economy for as long as possible.

Case Study – Developing Sustainable Partnerships

SLS works with clients to provide comprehensive services to ensure that end-of-life equipment is responsibly recycled on an international basis. Trusted and transparent, our services are compliant with global recycling standards.

Time is of the essence.

In promoting the reuse of electronic devices, it is always advised to have replaced IT and electronic equipment moved out as fast as it moves in. The value and desirability of electronics depreciate quickly so it is not advised to let equipment sit in storage.

These devices can also break down over time. Especially if the equipment is stored outdoors items can rust, oxidation can occur, and batteries can swell causing issues with resale.

Standardization is key.

Standardization of manufacturing materials and processes can help lower production and procurement costs. When it comes to disassembly of units, designing features into these devices that can assist in a more convenient disassembly makes the IT asset disposition process more efficient.

These features might include standardized screw types or tabs that are built-in and can be used to pull out different parts easily. Look into incorporating universal parts, plugs, or batteries into your design. Where possible, consistent placement of parts facilitates manual dismantling for reuse and recycling.

In the data center industry, many are adopting systems to promote disaggregation to support their sustainability goals, such as Open Compute and Open 19 to facilitate the reuse and repair of their parts and components. Open-source hardware use enables component level repairs to elongate the lifespan of entire racks as well as making reuse and recycling simpler.

Do not get too attached to adhesives.

In the reuse and recycling industry, adhesives are a big issue. Adhesives, typically used to seal batteries in place to make devices slimmer, make items difficult to deconstruct. Aside from the challenge of separation of parts, there is also an increased risk for a thermal (heat) event to occur. When challenges like this are presented during decommissioning of equipment, it can become discouraging to proceed and discourages reuse.

In older designs, different and dissimilar materials are bonded or molded together, significantly reducing the possibilities for recovering base materials. This should be avoided if the reuse of materials is to be optimized.

Consider how items are packaged.

Packaging cannot be left as an afterthought. We are using more materials than ever before as if we will never run out. Designing an environmentally friendly product is important, but if you package it in a non-recyclable substance, like Styrofoam, for example, it defeats the purpose.

“According to the United Nations Environment Programme, global materials use is expected to reach 88.6 billion tons in 2017 – three times more than the amount used in 1970.” –

Recyclable materials that are worth looking into include fiberboard, plastic, and airbags. Avoid using any glue on the packaging if possible, as this makes the material unable to be recycled. It might be worth looking into any programs in place in certain areas to see if they are able to accept boxes for reuse.


Easy Instructions – Making the most of each device, while in use.

Have you ever upgraded a device because of the attractiveness of a certain feature, and then found out later your replaced device had the same capabilities? Oftentimes we are not familiar with all that our equipment can do. Offering resources to help users learn new features, or interface designs that are easier to use will not only help users get the most out of the device but will also increase their overall satisfaction.

Releasing repair guidelines and product designs can also assist with access to repair and replacement options. The EU is introducing ‘Right to Repair’ legislation to force manufacturers to make repairing and replacing components a simpler aspect of product design.

Closing the Loop – Contributing to a Circular Economy

As we move toward a sustainable electronics use model, organizations from all areas of the supply chain are galvanizing into action. Many are setting ambitious goals, supported by budget and resources to contribute toward a circular electronics ecosystem.

  • Coca-Cola announced they will aim to collect and recycle a bottle or can for every one they sell by 2030.
  • Microsoft is committed to being carbon negative by 2030. By 2050 their goal is to remove all of the carbon Microsoft has emitted since it was founded in 1975.
  • Samsung is pledging to use only paper packaging materials certified by forestry initiatives by next year.
  • Bosch has committed to achieving carbon neutrality across its direct global operations by 2020 – a move it claims will mitigate the emission of 3.3 million tonnes of CO2 within the next 12 months.
  • Facebook committed to using 100% renewable energy sources in 2020.

Sustainability Programs, Standards, and Certifications

Across the globe, various programs, standards, and certifications support circular economy and sustainability initiatives. The following information includes some specific ones to be aware of which will offer guidance and structure when considering your circular design efforts.

United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDG)

We are in a significant era for sustainable development. In a historic 2015 UN summit, the United Nations (UN) member states adopted the 2030 agenda for sustainable development. On January 1, 2016, the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) came into force.

SDG Goal 12 — Responsible Consumption and Production:

This is in place to ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns. Targets include:

  • Sustainable management
  • Efficient use of natural resources
  • Environmentally sound management of chemicals and all wastes
  • Reduction of waste generation
  • Sustainable practices and reporting

SDG Goal 14 — Life Below Water:

This is in place to conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine sources for sustainable development. Targets include:

  • Prevent and reduce marine pollution
  • Sustainably manage and protect marine and coastal ecosystems
  • Minimize impacts of ocean acidification
  • Enhance the conservation and sustainable use of oceans and their resources

EPEAT Certification

This certification is an electronic product environmental assessment tool, which is what makes the acronym, EPEAT. This covers equipment such as servers, computers and displays, imaging equipment, mobile phones, and televisions. Large companies and manufacturers are scored on the recyclability of the products they manufacture.

Companies, like Sims Lifecycle Services, can dismantle new products to find out what they are made of. New products are dismantled and analyzed for recyclability. To take it a step further, SLS will also try many approaches to materials recovery, analyzing impacts and costs, reviewing approaches, and refining until the best solution is reached. These types of services help make sustainability profitable and assist in achieving higher EPEAT scores.

Energy Star

Programs like Energy Star help consumers identify energy-efficient products on the market. Incorporating Energy Star requirements into your design will help consumers and businesses save electricity and avoid energy costs, as well as associated reductions of greenhouse gas emissions.

While the Energy Star program is based in the United States, there are different elements of the program that have been adopted in Europe, Canada, Japan, and Taiwan.

Electronics Recycling Certifications

These sets of standards and certifications can prove helpful in guiding product development and design on the front end, to bring up recyclability considerations on the back end.

Responsible Recycling (R2) Certification

The Responsible Recycling (R2) Standard for Electronics Recyclers establishes best practices for the recycling of electronics globally. This standard was put in place to help businesses make informed decisions and have confidence that their equipment was being managed in an environmentally responsible manner.

Estewards Certification

This certification, created by the Basel Action Network (BAN) in 2009, represents a set of global standards that promote best practices for the management of electronics at their end of life. Standards like this help businesses assess different vendors in this space.


This European certification helps assess WEEE recyclers that conform to the EN 50625 standards and ensure responsible processing and disposal of WEEE.

In Conclusion

Sustainability is now business as usual, as initiatives are built into standard reports. Most major companies have defined sustainability goals and measurements in place. These standards help report on strategic business objectives as they relate to global greenhouse gas and emissions reduction opportunities.

Working alongside an expert like SLS will provide expertise on sustainable practices and guidance for the use of resource-efficient materials in new products.

The global consumer electronics market is predicted to reach $1.7 billion by 2024. In any industry of this size, even small changes will have a huge impact, and it starts with a circular design.

Author: Sims Media