When it comes to sustainability, can you have both durability and recyclability? A research team at the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) aims to answer this question. The team recently published a study in the journal Management Science, that looks into the impact of government policies put in place to reduce the amount of electronic scrap filling up landfills.
The study focuses on government policies used to encourage electronics makers to put more thought into what happens at the end of their product’s life cycle. “There is a lot of concern in sustainability circles that manufacturers are making things with shorter and shorter life spans, and products are perhaps even intentionally made to become obsolete to induce replacement purchases,” said Beril Toktay, a professor at Georgia Tech’s Scheller College of Business.
Policies such as Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), which is a fundamental principle of zero waste, help drive the adoption of remanufacturing initiatives because they focus on end-of-use treatment of consumer products and has the primary aim to increase the amount and degree of product recovery and to minimize the environmental impact of waste materials. EPR programs are already in use in some states, and have two common objectives: to have producers design their products to be easier to recycle or to boost their durability for increased device life span. However, Georgia Tech’s research finds that these goals are often at odds with each other.
“What we have found is that sometimes when you design for recyclability, you give up on durability, and when durability is a goal, recyclability is sacrificed,” Toktay said. The study points out that in theory, a product that is both easy to recycle and more durable would be the pinnacle of environmentally responsible product design. The researchers pointed to automobiles with thicker metal frames that last longer and also have more recyclable materials. In such a scenario, EPR policies emphasizing durability and recyclability work hand-in-hand. “Sometimes simple choices that produce designers make, such as using glue or fasteners to put together a device, really impact recyclability at the end of life,” said Natalie Huang, a former graduate student of Georgia Tech and now an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota.
The researchers said that in some cases, EPR policies could actually lead to increased waste generation if product designers make products more recyclable but less durable, or lead to increased greenhouse gas emissions if products are made more durable but less recyclable. To help determine how government policies could impact individual products, the researchers built a mathematical model. Among the factors the model takes into account are the base production cost of the product, the degree of difficulty in increasing recyclability and durability, the degree of interaction between recyclability and durability in the product design, and the recycling properties of the product.