Enforcing specific strategies to avoid wasting resources is crucial in circular economy.
In previous articles we looked at the relationship between increased resource efficiency and approaching circular economy for a sustainable use of materials and products. We then explored the companies and the consumers’ role underlining the utility by technology and digitalization.
It is now fundamental to look at how products and raw materials should be used and which strategies help spare the environment and society from the negative consequences caused by wasting resources. According to Nancy Bocken, these strategies should be categorized into two different approaches (P. Bocken et al., 2016). The first is closing the resource cycle meaning reusing, recycling and returning materials back into the environment without damages. By increasing resource productivity for reuse and waste prevention alone, companies can save €600 billion and according to the “Zero Waste Programme for Europe” greenhouse gas emissions can be reduced by 2-4%.
In this article, we will focus on Bocken’s second point: slow down the resource cycle. In other words, designing products to avoid waste including extending the product’s life span and making products reusable.
A sustainable design has the potential to make products more recyclable, thereby reducing waste disposal. In addition, it allows products to be more durable and reusable, avoiding the expense associated with recycling and producing from scratch, leading to energy and material savings and reducing environmental impacts.
Figure 1 shows the condition of discarded appliances. It is revealed that various products are disposed of far too early. This may be due to a lack of repair options, but also as a result of a low level of consumer awareness.
Sustainable design is a systematic approach and effective strategies can focus on the beginning or the end of the product’s life cycle.
A sustainable product design preserves the material value for longer and the production costs can be reduced since less resources and energy are needed. Reusing and repairing products preserves the product’s value, although it is rather labour-intensive and requires hardly any new resources and energy. However, the lifetime of an energy-inefficient product should not be extended, instead it should be replaced for energy-saving product. Otherwise, rebound effects may result, which are negative environmental impacts due to the higher energy consumption during the long-term use of an energy-inefficient product. One example is using for many years an old energy consuming fridge instead of replacing it with a more sustainable option. The overall goal is that a product’s circularity achieves the lowest environmental impact and the related costs do not exceed the social and environmental benefits.
Toxic substances represent a danger to humans and the environment in their use and disposal. Company standard requirements and stricter control could reduce the negative impact of especially hazardous substances. Taxing harmful substances does not necessarily reduce demand, as they are needed in the production of many goods and are often not substitutable.
A sustainable product design first checks in which product groups any toxic substances pose a threat. This requires information on the composition and production of an individual product. One strategy for removing hazardous substances from the material cycle is to plan a design that simplifies separation during later recycling. For the separation and sorting out of toxic and non-recyclable substances, products could be designed on a modular basis. Modules could be replaced and non-recyclable parts of products could be treated separately.
Adjusting Circular Business Models
Business models need to be adjusted in favour of circular products and politically encouraged so that they can compete with linear producers. As mentioned in the last articles, new technologies, a sufficiently large market, as well as increasing producer responsibility and an adjusted VAT rate are important for increasing resource efficiency in order to make it easier for sustainable companies to enter the market. For the producer, eco-design with a longer life cycle might be less attractive because less is produced.
Price signals in the form of taxes are often not enough. In order to actively improve resource efficiency through ecodesign, binding standards and requirements regarding product lifespan, reparability, reusability and recycling are effective. A radical option would be to only allow a product to enter the market if it meets certain criteria and standards set in advance in the product design. This could create barriers for particularly environmentally harmful products and force sustainable product design in the long term.
Is Slowing The Loop Recognized By Politics?
Most measures of the first “Action Plan for a Circular Economy” were rather related to the end of the product life cycle and barely any binding standards and laws for waste prevention and reuse of products were taken. Despite this, the introduction of minimum standards has reduced the sale of energy inefficient products. In the future, new factors should be defined, such as the availability of spare parts for repair and the avoidance of hazardous substances. It is particularly important to define individual quality standards for the optimal reuse and repair of products. The benefit can thus be increased in the later consumption of used products and the consumer’s trust in used and repaired products increases.
A positive aspect of the Green Deal is that the “New Action Plan” focuses on a framework for sustainable product policy. The new framework now also aims to avoid waste in consumption and production. For this purpose, the legislative initiative of the Ecodesign Directive is to include extended regulations for sustainable design in the future.
The European Union’s directive for Ecodesign, “…provides consistent EU-wide rules for improving the environmental performance of products, such as household appliances, information and communication technologies or engineering. The directive sets out minimum mandatory requirements for the energy efficiency of these products.”
The planned regulations, for example concerning reusability and the proportion of recycled materials as well as the ban on burning unsold products, improve the Ecodesign Directive. However, the European Commission only mentions a limited number of energy-related product groups in its action plan. For this reason, many companies will probably not significantly increase their efforts in product design.
Moreover, it remains questionable whether inefficient eco-design strategies will be banned. The incentives of sustainable design will not be sufficient if this does not happen. The past has shown that there is probably no way to avoid regulations and bans. The European Union will now have to take this step and hold companies without a sustainable strategy more accountable. It will be important to define clearly where and to what extent guidelines have to be enforced.