The difference over the last decade in particular has been that some governments are also getting anxious about the extent of solid and hazardous wastes arising from everyday products, be they packaging, furniture or IT equipment.

The overriding conclusion across much of the literature and research about sustainability is that our current patterns of production and consumption are unsustainable. Most key indicators of resource consumption continue to outpace population growth. 

The broader context within which discussions about EcoDesign, Design for Environment (DfE) and ‘green’ products often takes place is sustainable development. In its most stripped down form, sustainable development is that which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

John Elkington, UK sustainability guru and consultant to progressive global corporates, talks about ‘triple bottom line sustainability’ in his book Cannibals with Forks (1998). He argues that businesses need to address the triple bottom line i.e. economic prosperity, environmental quality and social justice.

While the theory and principles of sustainability are convincing at a macro and conceptual level, key stakeholder groups from industry (including industrial designers), government and the community, can often struggle to achieve consistently successful and enduring outcomes.

One of the dominant imperatives is the issue of implementation. How can the theory, principles or strategies of sustainability be translated into the design, production, marketing, consumption, disposal and recycling of manufactured goods?

There are no simple or quick answers, however many designers and their clients are well advanced towards developing smart solutions. One of the key drivers for this activity over recent years has been the concept of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), or in more North American terms – Product Stewardship.

During the last decade EPR has emerged as a radical new policy approach focussed on placing greater responsibility on manufacturers, distributors and brand owners, to recover their products at end of life (EOL) and ensure they are remanufactured and refurbished or at worst disassembled and recycled.

The primary goal is to divert discarded products from landfill, incineration and other less desirable outcomes as a way of maximising resource use efficiency and minimising environmental impacts.

One of the main sectors affected by government imposed EPR policies and legislation is the electronics sector. While energy efficiency during product operation is being addressed in some product categories with the introduction of minimal standby consumption requirements, the majority of activity has focused on the interrelated issues of:

• EcoDesign or Design for Environment during new product development;

• Cleaner Production or Pollution Prevention during product manufacture; and

• EPR and end-of-life management including product recovery, reuse and recycling.

The European Commission’s Directive on Waste from Electrical and Electronic Equipment has attracted the most attention given its focus on EPR and the requirement to make individual producers cover the costs associated with the recycling or safe disposal of electrical and electronic waste, however numerous stakeholders around the world are immersed in the issue of better managing electronic waste.

Government activity

The extent and diversity of government activity focused on tools and strategies to minimise environmental impacts associated with End of Life electronics, is astonishing. Like few other waste streams, E-Waste has captivated policy makers and regulators.

From rigid mandatory requirements in the EU and Japan through to voluntary take-back schemes in many US States and Australia, local, state and national governments seem to be giving E-Waste unprecedented attention. Having said this, some are moving faster than others, and although arguable, regulation or its threat appears to be a key catalyst.

Australia and New Zealand

Government environment policy related to electronic products and E-Waste in Australia is limited but developing. Attention to E-waste in New Zealand is isolated to some innovative industry driven schemes associated with the take-back of whitegoods in Auckland.

While there is no regulatory action at present in Australia, the pace and extent of voluntary activity is certainly growing. One of the ongoing issues for industry and governments in Australia is the often cumbersome mix of government agencies and departments that operate across national, state and local levels.

This hierarchy of bureaucracy remains a significant barrier to any widespread action from the electronics sector as a whole. Even though State Government agencies in the States of Victoria and New South Wales are starting to engage with, and support industry initiatives on electronics take-back and E-Waste management, it is accurate to conclude that trade associations are the key players in Australia. 

The Australian Electrical and Electronics Manufacturers’ Association together with the Consumer Electronics Suppliers are undertaking a range of initiatives from research collaboration on DfE and EOL disassembly through implementation of pilot take-back schemes for consumer electronics such as TVs and VCRs.

Other groups such as the Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association and the Australian Information Industry Association are also involved in corporate and association wide projects on E-Waste.

In terms of E-Waste policy formulation in Australia at the National or Federal level, the most significant activity has been the very slow development of a National Product Stewardship Agreement for electrical and electronic products.

Facilitated by the Federal Government through its environment agency, Environment Australia, the process has been generally unproductive to date. It would appear that State Government agencies working in cooperation with key industry associations would achieve more productive outcomes ahead of any national process managed by the Federal Government.

In particular, State agencies such as EcoRecycle Victoria and Resource New South Wales, are demonstrating a proactive position in helping industry associations address the key issues associated with electronic products and E-Waste.

To date a range of initiatives have been part funded by these two agencies including the co-funding of pilot EPR schemes for consumers electronics, computers and whitegoods.

Corporate activity and industry associations

The number of individual electronic companies adopting a life cycle approach to their products and services is growing significantly. The active use of EcoDesign methods and Life Cycle Assessment techniques is relatively mainstream among product development teams within the major OEMS, especially IT and communications companies.

Many of these are also implementing to varying degrees, some form of take back programs to recover and recycle End of Life electronic products. Whether through genuine foresight and/or through threat of regulation, the reasons are somewhat elastic depending on the specific product category, geographic region and policy context.

• Europe-based globals such as Philips, Ericsson and Nokia represent some of the pioneers working on how to improve the environmental performance
of electronic products and better manage E-Waste.

• Japanese multinationals such as Canon, Toshiba, Hitachi, Oki, Fujitsu, Sony, NEC, Brother, Seiko Epson, Matsushita – Panasonic and Sharp, are also investing significant resources and effort in maximising their environmental performance.

One of the strongest voices on the roles and responsibilities of industry emanates from industry associations directly representing manufacturers, suppliers and retailers of electronic products. Key associations across Europe, North America and Australasia are vigorous in their efforts to effectively represent their members while also ensuring an acceptable public environmental policy on sensitive ecological and human health concerns as they relate to electronic products and E-Waste.

The collective activities and considerable influence (globally) of the Electronics Industries Alliance in the USA, the European Association of Consumer Electronics Manufacturers and Japan’s Association for Electric Home Appliances, should not be underestimated.

Such associations have developed a comprehensive armoury of initiatives that cover political lobbying and input to government policy formulation on the direction of producer responsibility regulations, through to specific technical programs and information resourcing of their member companies.

Pilot take-back projects as well as collaborative R&D on electronic products and E-Waste, result in a growing level of knowledge and behaviour change. 

Waste management industry

Another key stakeholder in the E-Waste challenge is the waste management industry. The industry’s technical, logistical and market development capabilities are pivotal in driving down the overall cost of recovering, reusing and/or recycling EOL electronic products.

The lack of a vibrant market for the full range of recovered materials to be found in E-Waste will remain an ongoing barrier to widespread recovery and recycling of E-Waste.

This is especially relevant in those markets or jurisdictions where voluntary or self-regulated approaches to E-Waste are dominant. It can be argued, as do many policy makers and academics, that without mandated targets or requirements for producers to take life-cycle responsibility for their electronic products, the incentives for developing new products and EOL processes that are technically and commercially viable, is severely diminished if not totally absent.

Research institutions and universities

Universities and other research institutions represent a very important group in the challenge to design greener electronic products and develop viable EOL solutions for E-Waste. 

The collective work of universities across North America, Europe, South East Asia and Australia, is tackling the full spectrum of environmental issues related to E-Waste.

From detailed engineering design issues and automated disassembly processes, through to bigger picture policy formulation and life cycle costing of take-back schemes, universities are working independently and in cooperation with industry to develop solutions aimed at making the electronics sector more sustainable and life cycle oriented. Noteworthy institutions include:

• Centre for Sustainable Design, Manchester Metropolitan University, University of Surrey, Brunel University (UK)

• Carnegie Mellon University, Technology Business and Environment Program at MIT, Tellus Institute, Stanford University, INFORM (USA)

• International Institute of Industrial Environmental Economics, Chalmers University (Sweden)

• Design for Sustainability Program at TU Delft, University of Twente, Lieden University (Netherlands) 

• Centre for Design at RMIT University, EcoDesign Foundation, UNSW (Australia)

Activist and advocacy groups

Another framework for review is to consider what the activist and advocacy organisations are saying about E-Waste and the broader debate on electronics and the environment.

The quantity of information and penetration of such groups and their message is not to be underestimated. It provides a not insignificant beacon in relation to where corporate environmental performance on E-Waste is likely to arrive in the medium term.

At a mainstream community level, the consumption rate of electronic products tends to suggest a blind celebration of IT and communications technologies with little regard for environmental or social issues at the time of purchase.

Consumers have made some noise about electronic scrap but mostly in relation to the impacts associated with exporting such waste to developing and/or transitional economies such as China and the Philippines.

Despite the ever reducing innovation cycle and the pressures due to software advances, consumers and other end users are still focussed on hard drive size, memory cache and monitor size as opposed to design for recycling, hazardous substances and product take-back.

As more research, data and knowledge accumulates on the impact of electronic products and E-Waste on human health and ecological systems, the voice and influence of advocacy groups will become stronger and harder for industry and government to ignore.

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