Ramirez M.
University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia

Keywords: sustainable design; industrial design; environmental reporting; consumer electronics.

Abstract: This research aims to determine what the world’s top 12 consumer electronic product manufacturers are doing to address the adverse ecological effects arising from electronic goods flooding not only the market but also landfill sites. Corporate environmental reports were consulted for evidence of sustainable design approaches employed throughout the lifecycles of manufactured electronic products. These approaches and practices were tabulated and cross-referenced with those found in the Okala ecodesign strategy wheel developed by the Industrial Designers Society of America. The analysis shows that electronics producers do adopt a wide range of sustainable design strategies, not just to comply with regulations, but also to promote themselves as taking leadership in environmental innovation and corporate social responsibility.

Introduction

Consumer electronic products provide us with digital entertainment, information, mobile communications, and networked computing, and it’s difficult to imagine life in the 21st century without them. However, rapid technological development and aggressive advertising jointly render last year’s gadgets obsolescent in people’s minds. The sustainability impacts and advancements of the consumer electronics industry have been widely discussed (CEA, 2008, 2010, 2013; ECMA, 2010; Greenpeace, 2012, 2014). Stringent environmental laws in the European Union – particularly the WEEE, RoHS and REACH directives – have driven many global manufacturers to improve their products and processes (EU, 2006a, 2006b, 2012, 2013).

Methodology

This paper explores the ecologically-oriented product design activities of the largest manufacturers in the consumer electronics industry. Corporate environmental and sustainability reports, and technology and environmental news on greener electronics were consulted.

‘Consumer electronics’ is defined in this paper as digital devices containing electronic circuit boards, intended for everyday use for personal entertainment, communications and office productivity; electronics used in the kitchen, laundry or household cleaning are excluded.

Market studies were consulted to shortlist the top 12 companies: Acer, Apple, Dell, Hewlett Packard (HP), LG, Microsoft, Nokia, Panasonic, Samsung, Sharp, Sony and Toshiba (Business Insights, 2010; Fortune, 2014).

The Okala Eco-design Strategy Wheel (White et al. 2013) was used as the basis for establishing which environmentally sustainable design approaches are used by each manufacturer. This tool was developed by the Industrial Designers Society of America, based on the Lifecycle Design Strategies (LiDS) Wheel originated by Delft University of Technology (Brezet & Van Hemel, 1997).

Results

The information gathered from the corporate reports and news was tabulated against the 47 Okala eco-design strategies and analysed (Figure 1). Due to limited space not all strategies are discussed.

Okala ecodesign strategies used by consumer electronics manufacturers

Design for innovation

Nokia’s decision to not include a free charger with each new phone is an exemplar of the Okala strategy ‘rethinking how to provide the benefit’. If one’s old charger does not work with the new model a new charger can be separately purchased. The new box shrunk to one-fourth of the original size, and allowed Nokia to ship the same amount of products in half the number of trucks.

An example of ‘providing the product as a service’ is the ‘software as a service’ (SaaS) approach, practiced by 8 manufacturers, in which licensed software products are delivered to customers via cloud computing over the internet, thereby avoiding emissions from shipping, packaging and CD manufacture.

Only one case was found for ‘using living organisms in product system’: Dell’s servers are protected during shipment by Ecovative mushrooms grown into foam-like cushion shapes using cotton, rice hulls or wheat chaff.

‘Mimicking biological systems’ was demonstrated by both Dell and HP in their packaging made from leftover wheat straw which were broken down by specialty enzymes, in an organic process similar to that found in a cow’s digestive system; compared to traditional chemical pulping, enzyme-pulping uses 40% less energy and 90% less water. In 2014 Dell launched AirCarbon, a biodegradable and compostable plastic from sequestered greenhouse gases, just like plants being made by pulling carbon dioxide out of the air.

Design for reduced material impacts

All manufacturers were found to be actively ‘avoiding materials that are known to damage human or ecological health’. All have publicly available chemical substance management policies, and commitments to trace the origins of their tantalum, tin, tungsten and gold supplies to ensure that they are not ‘conflict minerals’.

Apple has led the industry in reducing or eliminating toxic substances. It phased out all lead in their solder and display glass, which later became arsenic-free and mercury-free. Brominated flame retardants (BFR) in all plastic enclosures, circuit boards, and connectors were replaced with metal hydroxides and phosphorus compounds. Thermoplastic elastomers replaced all polyvinyl chloride (PVC) in Apple power cords and headphone cables, which also became phthalate-free. Their batteries do not contain lead, cadmium or mercury. However, Apple products have not always been toxin-free; a Greenpeace report revealed that iPhones and iPods contained high concentrations of hazardous chemicals (Santillo et al., 2007).

Samsung has phased out six hazardous substances of concern – mercury, lead, cadmium, hexavalent chromium, poly- brominated biphenyl, and poly-brominated di- phenyl ethers. PVC and BFR have been removed from all Samsung mobile phones, MP3 players and all notebook PC models. Other consumer electronics manufacturers have not yet been successful in completely removing these harmful substances from their products, but all claim to have at least one model which is ‘halogen-free’, although these claims often exclude power cords. Several have replaced the fluorescent lamps and LCD backlights in their displays and monitors with more energy-efficient and mercury-free LED backlights. The major driver for switching to low-impact materials is obviously the European RoHS, REACH and WEEE regulations (EU, 2006b, 2012, 2013).

‘Using materials from reliable certifiers’ was commonly practiced by sourcing fibre for packaging and for catalogues from suppliers certified by either the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) or the Programme for Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC). Conflict-free minerals were sourced from smelters certified by the Global e-Sustainability Initiative (GeSI) or by the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition (EICC).

‘Minimizing quantity of material’ was evidenced by the friction-stir welding process for the Apple iMac desktop computer, which saves 68% of material. Most manufacturers also offered ‘thin client’ computing solutions which use 50% less material to produce than a traditional desktop PC.

‘Using recycled or reclaimed materials’ was commonly reported. Sony’s Blu-Ray disc player contains 76% resin recycled from plastic bottles. Sony developed SORPLASTM from 99% waste polycarbonate resins and applied this on Bravia LCD televisions and in video cameras, still cameras, and recording binoculars.

The Samsung Universe and Rant mobile phone models contained 69% and 50% postconsumer materials, while the Apple Mac Pro fan assemblies are derived from re-polymerized plastic bottles. Postconsumer recycled fibres are common in electronics packaging. Apples’ iPhones and iPod Classics are retailed in boxes containing 90% to 100% postconsumer fibre, while their corrugated cartons have 28% to 50% recycled content; iTunes gift cards, formerly made of PVC, are now made from recycled paper. Nokia reports that 78% of their retail and transport packaging materials contained certified recycled fibres. Dell has packaging cushions made from 100% recycled HDPE from milk jugs and detergent bottles.

Eight manufacturers had examples of ‘using renewable resources as materials’. Some Samsung and Nokia mobiles contain bioplastics derived from fermented corn sugar. The Apple AirPort Express enclosure made of industrial-grade rapeseed biopolymer blended with recycled polycarbonate, while the packaging for Apple EarPods is a renewable tapioca paper foam material that dissolves in warm water.

Design for manufacturing innovation

‘Minimize manufacturing waste’ was reported by all companies on their waste management policies; Dell, Panasonic and Toshiba published their ‘zero waste guiding principles’. ‘Seek to eliminate toxic emissions during manufacture’ was evidenced by the manufacturers’ lists of substances to be restricted or banned from their products.

‘Minimizing energy or water use in production’ and using carbon-neutral or renewable energy sources during production’ were also practiced by all but at different levels. The Apple North Carolina data centre is largest end-user owned photovoltaic array installation in America. All other manufacturers used renewable energies in their operations, either by purchasing 100% renewable electricity or having photovoltaic power generation on site.

Design for reduced distribution impacts

All manufacturers had strategies to ‘reduce product and packaging weight and volume for
transportation’. Acer, HP and LG have eliminated all in-box hardcopy documentation in their products and made them available online. More effective carton design has led to 40% to 60% reduced packaging volumes at Acer and Apple, and between 25% to 40% reductions in packaging weight. The multiproduct cartons for the enterprise products of Dell and HP can hold as much as twice the number of components in the same space as individually packaged products. Microsoft’s replacement of its plastic software cases with paper decreased overall weight by 40%.

Design for reduced consumption impacts

Diverse design approaches were found in ‘encouraging low-consumption user behaviour’ and ‘reducing energy consumption during use’. Acer’s ‘Green Instant On’ technology enables users to put their Aspire laptops to sleep and wake it up in less than 2 seconds. All Dell OptiPlex desktop computers are shipped with Energy Smart power management settings enabled. Toshiba’s Regza and Sony’s Bravia LCD TV models use zero- or near-zero watt when in standby energy saving mode. HP and LG both have online carbon footprint calculators that enable customers to estimate energy consumption and CO2 emissions when using their products. The Nokia Ovi app reminds the user to unplug when charging is completed, as well as give information on battery status and available standby time and talk time. All manufacturers have products which are Energy Star® labelled and demonstrate various approaches in conserving energy.

Only half of the manufacturers apply ‘design for carbon-neutral or renewable energy during use’. LG, Sharp and Samsung released solar mobile phones and Samsung had a solar- charging netbook. Sony has portable emergency radios which are solar-charged and dynamo-powered.

Design for system longevity

‘Design for durability’ is the most obvious way to make products that last. Dell, Toshiba, Acer and Panasonic-Microsoft offer education- specific laptops which have been designed with extra durability features to endure rough student handling: reinforced shells, shock protection against everyday knocks and drops, spill-resistant keyboards and touchpads, strengthened hinges, and solid-state drives with no spinning parts.

All Dell Latitude, HP Elitebook and Toshiba Tecra laptops are third-party tested to military standards for vibration, dust, humidity, altitude and high temperatures. But the leader in extreme gadgets is Panasonic, whose fully rugged Toughbook laptops and semi-rugged Toughpad tablets are cast from lightweight magnesium alloy and can be used in the harshest environments, such as construction sites, factories and mines. Microsoft Surface tablets have been demonstrated as being strong enough to be ridden like skateboards. The LG G-Flex smartphone has a curved OLED display and casing that flexes and will not get damaged in one’s hip pocket, plus a ‘self- healing’ cover which can repair minor abrasions on its own.

Another strategy for long-lasting products is to ‘design for maintenance and easy repair’. Apple is notorious for producing the least serviceable products. In 2009 it introduced the ‘pentalobe’ screw, a proprietary five-pointed screw apparently designed to prevent self-repairing of iPhones and Macbook Pros. In 2013 iFixit.com – a website that teaches people to repair their own gadgets – listed the top 10 most and least repairable electronic gear. The HP Z1 Workstation PC came out best in this list, with a 10/10 fixability score; its modular construction allows users to replace most major components in five minutes or less (Carlozo, 2013a).

The iFixit list of most difficult-to-repair items was dominated by Apple products in several categories (Carlozo, 2013b). The Apple MacBook Pro Retina Displays were the worst laptops due to their glued-in batteries, proprietary screws, and non-upgradeable RAM memory; the Apple iPod Shuffle and iPod Touch were the worst MP3 players, impossible to open without destroying; and the iPad 4 and iPad Mini were the worst tablets due to their Lightning connectors being soldered to the logic board, so if a connector pin breaks the entire assembly must be replaced.

iFixit also published the reparability scores of smartphones and tablets in the market (iFixit, 2013a, 2013b). Devices with perfect scores were those which were relatively inexpensive to repair, easy to disassemble, and have an available service manual; extra points were given for upgradability, use of non-proprietary tools for servicing, and component modularity. Points were lost if the device is difficult to open or if component replacement is complex. Many Samsung, Nokia and Dell devices were rated highly in the easy-to-repair list. On the difficult- to-repair list were many Apple products, but the worst scores went to the Microsoft Surface Pro, which used excessive glues and screws to hold everything in place.

Design for optimized end-of-life (EOL)

‘Design for fast manual or automated disassembly for end-of-life processing’ assists in the cost-effective dismantling, segregation and identification of waste electronic components, thereby making them conducive for recycling. Several manufacturers were found to be adopting design for disassembly principles such as: prescribing only one plastic type per component whenever possible; avoiding glues, adhesives or welds on components; using common fasteners and snap-in features but at the same time minimizing the number of fasteners and tools necessary for disassembly; clearly marking the position of screws and indicating the number of screws; affixing material identification labels on plastic parts and components; and affixing recycling label on all batteries.

Another approach is to ‘design the recycling business model’. Several manufacturers have gone into partnership with large retail chain stores and charity sites to help recover unwanted gadgets for proper recycling. Most manufacturers also offer free prepaid shipping labels for used products and spent consumables, or trade-ins for working gadgets.

Discussion and conclusion

The examples found clearly demonstrate that consumer electronics manufacturers do apply eco-design strategies using various approaches and at various phases of the lifecycle of their products.

Design strategies for psychological durability – such as ‘creating a timeless aesthetic’ or ‘fostering emotional connection with products’ – seem irrelevant in the electronics industry. Indeed when gadgets rise to the status of beloved ‘design icons’ – for instance Dieter Rams’ classic designs of radios, televisions and phonographs for Braun in the 1960s – these objects only survive in our present day either as museum pieces or as ‘modern antiques’.

This study was largely based on self-reported information from manufacturers regarding their environmental design achievements, and therefore the potential of being ‘greenwashed’ by their claims posed a risk to the reliability of the findings. The technology news articles and reports by environmental activism groups provided the balancing act to enable looking at the industry from two different lenses.

Finding a flawless manufacturer in the consumer electronics industry is of course impossible. There will always be aspects of a gadget or production or consumption process which could be deemed praiseworthy, but at the same time there would also be attributes which are undesirable. Many tablets and smartphones are extolled for all the beneficial applications that they provide in our everyday lives, such as saving paper by allowing us to read text online, and yet these products (or parts of them) do not function as long as they ought to, and they are rapidly rendered undesirable by the fancier technologies of the following year.

The Okala, being a structured eco-design tool, helps us objectively see the sustainability improvements which consumer electronics manufacturers have already achieved and continue to work on. Pro-environment advocates like Greenpeace, iFixit, and the European Parliament are to be commended for their continuous efforts in pressuring manufacturers to ‘greenify’. Admittedly there are considerably more electronic products that are free from the worst hazardous substances now than in 2006 (Greenpeace, 2014).

Amongst the 47 Okala strategies, one which could be better explored is ‘rethinking how to provide the benefit’. As Nokia has demonstrated, creatively thinking ‘out of the box’ enables us to see the problem with a completely new lens and to approach it in a truly ground-breaking way.

Acknowledgments

The author would like to thank the UNSW Faculty of Built Environment Research Link Scholarship Program for funding Mr Anuj Dhawan as a research assistant for this study.

References

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