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Designing With The End In Mind, That Is, End Of Life

Thu, 05/31/2012 - 9:23am
Paul Cannon, Ecospan LLC

As the demand for consumer electronics devices continues to explode globally, so too does the volume of waste generated. This waste is produced across a device’s entire lifecycle -- from manufacturing and initial packaging to the actual product casing itself and at the “end of life” stage of the product, along with all the transport containers used in-between.

The waste issue is attracting more and more attention from both consumers and government agencies alike. As the public dialogue around environmental responsibility moves to center stage, industrial designers and manufacturers, third party logistics companies that ‘move’ products and retailers are now sharpening their focus to bring sustainability into their product offerings to meet consumer demand, while maintaining competitive pricing.

The “low-hanging fruit” of simply making product packaging thinner or replacing petroleum-based plastics with corrugate-based solutions that can be partially recycled has been done. The industry must now look at new opportunities across a product’s life cycle to meet the demands of their customers and turn sustainability from a costly burden into a marketplace differentiator for their products and brands.

Ecospan, a material science design, development, and manufacturing company that specializes in bio based plastics, is taking an innovative approach by building a cooperative sustainability partnership, or a supply chain ecosystem, between the product brand owner, their suppliers and distribution partners. By looking at ‘whole solutions’ the company is able to drive down the cost of sustainability initiatives, make bio-based plastics cost-competitive with traditional petroleum-based plastics and capture the market share-reward in customer loyalty for their investment in ‘green’.

BioFlow, Ecospan’s brand of proprietary biopolymers, is blended with other petroleum-free ingredients or with petroleum-based ingredients to meet end-product specifications and make an endless variety of products and packaging ranging from housings and accessories for electronic devices and shipping containers and totes to lipstick tubes and eye shadow cases for the cosmetics industry to children’s toys.

Ecospan works with clients from the outset starting with application development for their product and then managing the design and development of the mold and the implementation of an end-of-life reuse and regrind strategy in a closed loop model that keeps material resources in the value chain and out of landfills.

Among Ecospan’s most significant commercial successes to date is a ‘reverse logistics’ application for smart phones. The end product is a bioplastic container with a foam insert that is used to ship smart phones back and forth from a repair center. Ecospan first provided a 3D rendering of the product concept, which went through several iterations. Next, prototypes were created and perfected and then the manufacturing mold was designed.

Unlike other alternatives to oil-based plastics, such as cardboard, this shipping container can be used 20 to 30 times, reducing both cost and waste. At the end of its life, it is returned to the company, ground and reused in a ‘cradle-to-cradle’ operation.

Major advances in the applications for bioplastics are making it possible to design products, along with all of their accessories and packaging, with their end-of-life disposal in mind. This is a new approach and offers more opportunities for designers to work with product developers who are preparing for a future climate of stricter environmental regulations.

Product and Accessory Design

Most electronics devices still end up in landfills at their end of life, taking up an untold amount of diminishing space for decades, if not centuries. This is primarily due to the fact that the end of life discussion and design considerations are not happening early enough in the product’s life cycle. As governments around the world contemplate Extended Provider Responsibility regulations, it will force the end of life discussion at the beginning, when products are on the drawing board, far in advance of product launch.

A handful of companies are discussing different design approaches and product development strategies today. The concept of creating a closed loop with consumers -- involving them in the ecosystem -- is something that needs to be part of this discussion. It is far easier and more profitable to keep existing customers than it is to land new ones. In that vein, it is in a company’s best interests to create ‘stickiness’ with their customers and engage them in the sustainability process. Creating a closed loop with consumers is an excellent way to drive business growth, delight customers and make significant progress towards lowering a company’s carbon footprint.

By working with retailers, distributors and directly with consumers themselves, electronics companies can create a closed loop for product repairs and returns and be in contact with their customers at the point of device trade-in with incentive offers and ‘green’ product information that will keep customers loyal and coming into their online and bricks-and-mortar stores. The sustainability message will ring loud and clear to target customers. But the vision for all of this has to happen early on in the product development and design lifecycle. 

Properties once thought achievable only through oil-based plastics are now achieved with bio-based plastics. This has opened new doors for industrial designers to incorporate sustainability into their product design, knowing that their material specifications will be met. This greatly enhances the prospects for more sustainability in the next generation of personal electronics devices.

Historically, the bioplastics industry delivered just materials to manufacturers. Today, companies like Ecospan, LLC are taking the risk out of the process both for the industrial designers who recommend and specify bioplastics and for the manufacturers who actually need to replace traditional plastics with bio-based alternatives in their production processes. With business models like the one at Ecospan; the burden of design and development with bio-based materials is minimized, with Ecospan taking on the risk of developing the applications and delivering the end product.

Another trend within the electronics industry is the reclamation of damaged products. Due to the value of many devices, most notably smart phones, more companies are deploying strategies to recapture devices for repair and refurbishment, spare parts and recycling. The potential ROI of recapturing broken devices and repairing them is significant and creating a mechanism to get them back through a reverse logistics process is paying dividends. The design of the product packaging and the transport containers used in the reverse logistics process are also significant factors in the ROI equation.

Single use packaging for reverse logistics is extremely prevalent in most processes today. And, in the process of shipping to multiple consolidation points, to repair depots and then ultimately back to the point of purchase or consumer, product packaging is changed several times throughout the cycle, generating large amounts of waste. And with some of the paper packaging that is used today, there is further damage being done to devices within this loop, oftentimes increasing the cost of repair or resulting in the disposal of the device.

Using bioplastic transport containers to ship consumer electronic devices within a sustainable closed loop system can provide an excellent solution for this problem, create a true “closed loop” ecosystem and provide significant benefits including ROI, elimination of waste and a dramatically lower carbon footprint. Key elements to delivering the benefits include:

  • Bioplastic containers made with petroleum-free materials.
  • Reuse of containers for multiple shipping cycles.
  • Closed-loop process.
  • Regrind of containers back into raw material.

Along with a commitment to ‘do the right thing’, it is clear that consumer electronics companies need to see a competitive advantage and ROI before they invest in ‘green.’ By delivering sustainable solutions across the product life cycle, -- from ideation and design to end-of-life -- the bioplastics industry is now helping to make the magic mix of sustainability and profitability possible.

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