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Nordic Countries Urge Development of Circular Value Chain for Electronic Products

On 5 August 2019, the Nordic Council of Ministers released a report entitled “Designing plastics circulation – electrical and electronic products”. The purpose of the report is to drive the electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) sector towards a circular economy. This can be done, it states, by encouraging companies to take on board circular design principles, improve material markings and identifications and by introducing legislation. The latter would focus on minimum recycled content in new products, reparability, modularity, upgradability, and ease of disassembly. Hong Kong’s electronics exporters may need to review their existing circular economy principles and practices to ensure that their businesses are not adversely affected if and when these policies are adopted. Hong Kong businesses could also consider engaging in the consultative processes and any future roundtables to ensure that their views and needs are taken into account.

The report notes that most EEE is not designed for recycling or a circular economy. The report puts particular focus on the recycling of plastics, noting that plastic accounts for about 20% of material use. Using recycled plastics can therefore lower the environmental impact and carbon footprint of a single product by over 20%. This focus builds on the EU Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy and the recently EU-enacted Single-Use Plastics Directive, as well as the Nordic Programme to Reduce the Environmental impact of Plastics. However, the present report goes further than the Design for Recycling (DFR) strategy called for in previous reports, by introducing the concept of circular design. This suggests that the EEE sector may become the next major industry where the EU focuses its efforts on reducing plastics consumption.

The report introduces recommendations in four major areas. First, the report suggests that companies should take on circular design principles and reverse logistics in their company strategy. Manufacturers should also take on board environmental cost accounting to be able to measure the benefits from a move towards greater recycling and a fully circular production cycle. The report points to examples from EEE manufacturers Dell and Phillips. Their closed loop plastics systems enable the companies to recall old EEE products from their customers and refurbish or recycle these in the production of new products.

Second, the report suggests the creation of a high-level roundtable of companies and other value chain actors to create sector-wide Circular Design Principles. No such design guidelines currently exist. The forum would promote exchanges between producers and recyclers, allowing them to coordinate and streamline the value and recycling chain. The report identifies existing networks, such as the WEEE Forum, Next Wave and producer responsibility organisations in EU Member States, which could join forces to take the lead on such an initiative.

Third, the report suggests improvements to material identification and the harmonisation of plastics use. Incorrect markings have resulted in recyclers not trusting the current system. Plastics which would be technologically possible to separate are therefore currently not sorted and recycled. Concerning harmonisation of plastics use, the report notes that a shift to the most commonly used polymers is an effective way to contribute to recycling. The report notes that there are around 500,000 different polymers in the world, and 470,000 are used in technical products. The report points to the PolyCE (Post-consumer high-tech recycled polymers for a Circular Economy) project’s recommendation to use polymers with high recyclability rates, such as ABS, HIPS, PS, and PP.

Alternatively, manufacturers could make greater use of the “platform design approach”, through which standardised parts are produced which can then be used in several products. This increases the economies of scale for integrating circularity principles, and makes repair easier.

In addition, avoiding chemicals and additives significantly improves circulation opportunities, the report notes. The report again refers to the guidelines produced by the PolyCE project concerning which additives should and should not be used to maximise product sustainability.

Fourth, the report calls for legislative instruments mandating the use of recycled content as well as the removal of existing regulatory barriers, such as the transport of e-waste across EU borders. The report also suggests that requirements regarding reparability, upgradability, modularity, and ease of disassembly (RUMED) could first be formulated as sector-wide principles and then gradually phased into law. These circular design strategies extend the lifespan of the product, enable worn-out or broken parts to be easily replaced, enable software to be upgraded without having to replace the product, and enable remanufacturing through easy disassembly. The report notes that this also improves the customer experience and creates loyalty and trust towards the brand seller.

The Nordic Council of Ministers is a policy collaboration forum set up between the five Nordic European countries, namely, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden. The report relied on research and interviews with 23 different organisations involved in the EEE sector, including producing companies, retailers, recyclers, and authorities.

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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