Designing for Sustainability

4 Pillars of Sustainable Design for Consumer Electronics

Consumer Electronic Idea Center

Scientists estimate we are using more resources than Earth can replenish in a year — 1.75 times more than our planet’s ecosystems can regenerate. This is just one of the factors driving an increase in sustainable practices in the consumer electronics market today.

In 2019, this market generated $1,032B in revenues globally. And the demand for electronics for work, school and home entertainment – especially in the wake of COVID-19 – continues to climb. But that growth doesn’t come without consequence. The United Nations estimates only 20 percent of the world’s 44 million tons of electronic and electrical waste is formally recycled each year.

Thankfully, a shift from a linear to circular economy is well underway. As more consumers look to do their part and rethink their consumption habits, they are placing increased value on brands with responsible practices and products that align with such ideals. Further accelerating change at the brand level are actual and potential regulations for increased recycled content, less waste, and end-of-life requirements. 

In addition, organizations such as the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and Alliance to End Plastic Waste (AEPW) have emerged to foster meaningful sustainability improvements by mobilizing manufacturers and brands. For example, Avient is a founding member of the AEPW, and also participates in the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s UK Plastics Pact.

Yet the solutions are complicated. Incorporating environmentally friendly practices can be challenging, especially when there isn’t one standard definition for sustainability. Where do you even start?

We’ve gathered up the following four pillars to help you design consumer electronics more sustainably.

1.    Efficient Design
You can start by first recognizing the broader environmental impacts your products may have over their lifecycle. This step should influence resulting design decisions - you essentially begin with the environment in mind. For example, you may end up using less material by designing smaller or thinner components, making products more durable so they last longer, and/or making them easier to repair. And don’t overlook responsible packaging. Both the size and weight of products and packaging can play a critical role in lessening environmental impact and can often be positively influenced by design. 

2.    Material Selection
Thoughtful material choices for housings, components, grips, or packaging get you closer to the circular economy. The right materials can help increase longevity, reduce weight, and expand design freedom. Although replacing virgin material with more eco-conscious options may present some challenges, a growing number of eco-conscious polymers offer on-par performance for many applications. This enables consumer electronics brands to incorporate more post-consumer recycled (PCR), post-industrial recycled (PIR), or bio-based content into products without sacrificing properties. Additionally, because recycled content is locally sourced, consider working with a global supplier who utilizes regional recycle streams to minimize potential sourcing risks.

3.    Reusability and Recyclability
End-of-life management is another key consideration for sustainable electronics. Devices that last longer have more chances for upcycling and reuse – diverting materials from the waste stream. But remember that recycling is a more critical link in a circular economy. Not only does it reduce waste, but recycling creates a supply stream for PIR and PCR content that reduces the need for virgin materials. Keep in mind that whether you’re aiming at mechanical or chemical recycling, design for recyclability has its challenges. The use of multiple materials, color, and certain additives can add to the recycling complexity or limit recyclability. And of course, the infrastructure for collecting end-of-life products so they can even be recycled is still evolving. Electronics brand owners can do their part by keeping recyclability top of mind during development, as well as embracing technologies and material sciences that reduce material requirements and improve recycling potential. If possible, adding an end-of-life collection option for consumers and partnering with recyclers is a powerful strategy.

4.    “Green” Supply Chain 
Not only is the sustainability of your product important, but the supply chain behind the product is a significant contributor to your overall environmental footprint. Seeking like-minded suppliers who focus on sustainable practices like energy efficiencies, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and eliminating waste can move you one step closer to a strong sustainability trajectory. From local support to responsible sourcing, your supply chain also has the potential to help you innovate and gain a competitive edge. 

To start exploring how to reach your sustainability goals, connect with our experts.
Sustainability at Avient

For more information on Avient solutions that bring these ideas to life – helping our customers and our planet – view our report.

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