Some commentators now argue that the disassembly of a product’s packaging after use is becoming just as important to designers as its initial production. Laser welding, ultrasonic, and other carbon-intensive chemical bonds are coming into question – if consumers can take the product apart themselves, does it become more recyclable? Could these kinds of designs even benefit industrial sustainability? We spoke to Sheri Dillard, director of Engineering Services at Jabil, about designing products with their disposal in mind.
To start with, can you introduce your understanding of Design for Sustainability to us and explain some of the key considerations?
Design for Sustainability, or sustainable design, takes a holistic view of a product from its earliest design stages to determine where materials or processes that contribute to the product’s environmental footprint (such as greenhouse gas emissions and the use of water and other natural resources) can be eliminated. It is easiest to integrate sustainability into a design, and at a low cost, before any prototypes are created or manufacturing finishes.
We look at the entire life cycle of the product, from the sustainability of the raw materials that will become components to the environmental commitments of the suppliers used and the ability of the product to be recycled, reused, or otherwise diverted from the landfill, e.g. through biodegrading.
You’ve outlined five strategies that companies can use to implement sustainable design: Material selection, device disassembly, modular design, component and supplier reduction, and reshoring or nearshoring supply chains. Could you break each of these down for us?
Each of these strategies can contribute to a product’s overall sustainability and should be considered and implemented in the early product design stages.
First, there’s material selection. At Jabil, we use a six-step assessment to analyze the sustainability of each potential material that could be used for a new design; we consider the environmental impact of the material’s production, the sustainability goals of the material’s supplier, and the carbon footprint of transporting the material.
More sustainable grades of commonly used resins, made from biodegradable feedstocks instead of fossil fuels, are increasingly available for consideration in device design. Using bio-based materials to produce these resins can greatly reduce their carbon footprint, or even turn it positive.
While we still design products for assembly and manufacturing, design for disassembly — creating a product that can easily be taken apart for recycling and reuse at the end of its lifecycle — is an important sustainability strategy. There are a few different ways to optimize the product’s disassembly post-use. One is to ensure that different resins can be fully separated from one another.
If recyclable resins can’t be segregated into their separate waste streams, you lose the sustainability benefits of those materials. Decreasing the reliance on materials that can contaminate waste streams, like lubricants, speeds up the disassembly process. Similarly, we like to look at bonding methods that take less time to disassemble, like magnetic screws or clips — forgoing time-intensive options (glue) or energy-intensive processes (laser welding).
Wherever possible, we also try to reduce the total number of components used in a design. Having fewer parts built and transported from fewer suppliers will make disassembly simpler and contribute fewer greenhouse gas emissions overall. This strategy could also result in a lighter final product, which will have a smaller carbon footprint throughout assembly, manufacturing, and transportation.
Simple disassembly also lends itself to modular design. As more companies embrace durable, reusable devices, the design must keep the reusable components separate from the replaceable parts. Whether it’s a battery in an electric car or a prefilled pharmaceutical cartridge in an autoinjector like Jabil’s Qfinity, the replacement component must be easy to swap out without contaminating the rest of the product.
Modular design is also beneficial for products containing components with short technology lifecycles; when new technology is available, the new component can be exchanged for the old. In the case of a car, with modular design, a new component can replace a broken one and make the car immediately operable again — eliminating the need for the entire car to sit in a repair shop because one small piece needs fixing.
Finally, bringing supply chains closer to your manufacturing facilities and end markets through reshoring or nearshoring can help cut down on the Scope 3 emissions generated during material and component transportation — again, contributing to an overall smaller carbon footprint for the product. Suppliers’ locations and sustainability practices are usually considerations we take during the material selection process, so these strategies really do work hand-in-hand to develop more sustainable product designs.
We all know that system changes such as this aren’t easy to implement, and that a number of roadblocks would need to be overcome. Can you talk about these hurdles, and some potential solutions to them?
One of the main challenges we hear partners and customers raise about implementing sustainable design practices is cost. We tend to look at it as an investment in the product and the environment. But there is certainly time, effort, and an upfront cost required in choosing the right materials, engaging the right suppliers and waste management partners, and understanding the assembly and disassembly processes necessary to create designs with a more desirable end of life.
However, once those elements are managed and optimized, companies can cut costs by using recycled materials, lowering their energy consumption, and reducing their waste charges by sending less material to landfills. Additionally, as more OEMs demand biodegradable or post-consumer resins to meet their sustainability goals, we could potentially see the price of these currently expensive materials decrease as the market for them expands.
Another challenge is a lack of transparency into how practices like sustainable design are making an impact on an organization’s ESG goals. Some companies find it difficult to collect and track all the sustainability data necessary for external reporting.
Carbon footprint calculators accomplish both tasks, demonstrating with data how changes like material selection or design for disassembly are making a tangible difference while also meeting standards and regulations. At Jabil, we use software to make data-driven decisions around sustainability to make a real, lasting environmental impact and ensure we’re on target to meet our goals.
Increasingly stringent regulations, like Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) laws that shift more of the obligation to manage and pay for waste to its producers, are leading more OEMs to embrace sustainable design. By designing devices to be sustainable from their inception, manufacturers can get ahead of laws that may shift or become stricter after a product has already launched on the market. This ends up saving them money, as it is significantly more difficult to make devices more sustainable after they have been designed and even more so after they have been manufactured.
Critics of “designing for sustainability” say that the concept becomes less relevant if there is limited collection, a lack of processing capacity, and a limited market for recycling. How would you respond to this?
Strategic planning for the end of a product’s life in the early design process can help overcome many of these challenges. Companies should work with their suppliers and waste management partners along with their design and engineering teams to determine which materials and components should be collected for recycling, and specifically identify how they will be used in the next generation of that same product or in a different product.
Having this plan developed in advance of products reaching their end of life will maximize the collection and processing capacity a product has and ensure energy is not wasted in the material recapture process.
Developing a strategy for on-site collection of post-use products in the early design stages could also create new business and cost-saving opportunities for OEMs. For example, at Jabil’s manufacturing facility in Bray, Ireland, we collect used plastics from our devices, grind that plastic on-site and send it to an external waste management partner for recycling. From there, the material is reintegrated into the circular economy to make new products like football seats and shopping baskets. Selling this post-consumer resin effectively pays for its own recycling.
Jabil has a separate project with one of our customers where we collect their end-of-life devices, grind them, reclaim the resins and precious metals inside while protecting their intellectual property, and use those materials in new devices. This saves money for our customers, eliminates the emissions associated with the creation and transportation of raw materials, and creates our own market for recycled materials.
There isn’t a “one size fits all” sustainable design strategy, nor is there one quick fix. But every change that OEMs can make in their product designs to decrease emissions can help reduce the overall production costs and bring them a step closer to meeting their sustainability goals.