How do we best use policies such as the WEEE, REACH and RoHS directives to improve environmental performance of our products? Interviewing actors from the Nordic manufacturing industry, REES researcher Carl Dalhammar has looked at what provisions are necessary to ensure that policies promote recycling and resource efficiency.

Anything can be designed, but not everything is allowed. Design policies shape product development and give directives on what to do and what to avoid. With the sustainability challenges we are facing today, we need to use these policies to improve the environmental performance of our products. How can we improve our policies in the EU so that they promote recycling and resource efficiency? This is what Carl Dalhammar at Lund University has been looking into, asking professionals from the Nordic manufacturing industry about their opinions on various possible changes.

To talk about the future, we need to know about today. The product-oriented regulations can be divided into three main categories: making products more energy efficient, banning hazardous substances, and making sure the product is disposed of in an appropriate way at its end-of-life stage. The WEEE directive regulates the end of life of electric and electronic products, while the REACH regulation and RoHS directive concern hazardous content. The Eco-Design directive is an extensive framework. It does not put requirements on every single product, but instead allows for setting compulsory eco-design requirements on product categories. Then there are industry standards, voluntary eco and energy-labels and a plethora of more specific rules. The problem is, the regulations we have today have not proved very effective at driving eco-design practices.

Improving resource-efficiency may sound abstract. Some suggestions on what can make resource-efficiency take off are policies promoting durability, improved recycling of materials and re-use of components, as well as policies that enforce long-term availability of spare parts and longer mandatory guarantee periods for consumers. Adding to that, policies that regulate toxic or critical materials by limiting some material uses or banning the mixing of some materials can also help.

The interviews showed that industry was more positive towards requirements that promote durability and recycling than other types of directives. However, some regulation saw more resistance. In particular, requirements on disassembly times were not very welcomed, both because they were considered to overlap with the WEEE directive and because manufacturers thought shredding would be more common for recycling in the future. That is not what the recycling industry believes, which shows that there is a need for more cooperation and understanding between manufacturing and recycling industries. In general, manufacturers do not like rules that reduce their control.

Another challenge is that although there are socio-economic benefits of setting eco-design criteria supporting recycling, the reward of improved design is not reaped by the producers today. The way the system works now, it is difficult for companies to get back their parts and valuable materials at the end of life. For this reason, several interviewees saw individual producer responsibility as a good solution.

Dalhammar draws three main conclusions. Firstly, industry is sceptical towards new types of regulations. Secondly, what is beneficial for society is not always a benefit for the companies. Thirdly, many anticipated problems related to the technological solutions and the clash between policy objectives will be solved once industry decides to solve them. Anything can be designed, and hopefully improved EU policies can contribute to new designs being more eco-friendly and resource efficient in the future.

Source: Dalhammar, C. (2016). “Industry attitudes towards eco-design standards for improved resource efficiency.” Journal of Cleaner production 123:155-166

In short – Making resource-efficiency happen in manufacturing