Product Design and Collection: Keys to Shaping Sustainability – Environmental Leader

Carl E. Smith, Former President and CEO of Call2Recycle

Carl E. Smith, Former President and CEO of Call2Recycle

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 U.S. 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.

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