What about production itself? That should probably also be sustainable.
Faulstich: Absolutely! If a product like an electric car is itself climate-neutral but its production isn’t, not much is gained. We need to look at the entire value chain from the manufacturing of components and actual production to usage, disassembly and recycling.
Riess: Production sites are also decisive for the ecological footprint of a product. Making a given product requires roughly the same amount of electricity all over the world. The question is: where does the energy come from? It makes a difference whether your production plant is located next to the Iguazú Falls in South America and has access to renewable electricity, or simply gets it from a coal-fired power station nearby. By the way, eco-friendly production is often more sustainable for economic reasons, as well. After all, the advantage of renewable energy is that the electricity is virtually free after the initial investment.
Devices would also be more sustainable if people recycled them more frequently. Why doesn’t this happen far more often? Why do we have somewhere north of 200 million old cell phones and smartphones in our drawers according to some estimates?
Faulstich: Over ten years ago, those of us at the German Advisory Council on the Environment proposed introducing a deposit system here – which resulted in everyone jumping down our throats. But if we had done that back then, those phones would surely not be collecting dust today. The problem with cell phones is that they’re so small and don’t bother anyone in a forgotten drawer. You’re far less likely to store several old washing machines in your basement. That said, maybe we don’t even need a deposit system. It would probably already help a lot if it were easier to dispose of devices and there were more recycling points.
Riess: The situation has already improved. Meanwhile, some well-known manufacturers have business models for trading in old devices. There are secondary markets for these devices in Africa, for example, or valuable raw materials can at least be incorporated back into the system.
But cell phones are only a small part of the electrical waste problem. Wouldn’t a deposit system for all devices of this kind achieve a lot?
Faulstich: We did a study on that. The problem is the resulting administrative burden, which shouldn’t be underestimated – we’re talking about several billion euros in deposits, which would then have to be kept somewhere. The deposit on bottles in Germany is usually claimed after a few weeks, whereas an electronic device can be used for several years and might also have several owners during that time. In my view, these issues aren’t fundamental arguments against having such a system, but introducing it would be no mundane task.
Riess: I also believe that other economic incentives would probably make more sense, or at least be more feasible. Above all, though, we shouldn’t forget the fact that Europe is already pretty far ahead in terms of recycling. There are already functioning regulations on things like batteries, and the prescribed quotas are met to the fullest.
Similar measures are now being discussed for packaging, meaning fixed quotas for recycled content. So we’re already on the right track.
Faulstich: But there’s still a lot to do. Of the approximately 16,000 kilograms of raw materials that every person in Germany uses annually, only around 12 percent are currently recycled. If we want to increase this ratio, we have to consistently require manufacturers to comply with fixed quotas for recycled materials in their products. The problem here is that there’s currently not enough recycled material on the market. I’m convinced that if such quotas existed, they would trigger corresponding movement in the market.
Riess: This is already evident with some raw materials; many metals have high recycling rates, for instance. The problem is more with plastics. I also believe that fixed quotas for recycled materials – as we already have with the EPEAT ecolabel – would create and inspire a market because these materials would suddenly also be highly valuable to manufacturers.
On the other hand, many products are very difficult to recycle. How can the VDE Institute help address this issue?
Riess: When testing a washing machine, for example, we take samples of around 650 parts. We look at whether the device includes substances or components that prevent recycling, so the manufacturer can then see exactly what they need to do to make their product more recyclable. They might need to use fewer different materials or fewer composites.
The last point I wanted to discuss with regard to making devices more sustainable is how we use them. Sustainability is a question not only of technology, but also of new usage models.
Faulstich: Exactly. The most prominent example of this is cars, which simply sit unused 23 hours a day on average. We’re now seeing the rise of new, more sustainable usage models such as car sharing. The question is whether we’ll see models like that far more often in the future. After all, there’s no point in every tenant in a large apartment having a drill lying around in their basement. And if everyone shares one device, the high-quality model I mentioned before is then worth the investment.
We’ve done a lot of talking about how to make products more sustainable. How do we get this to finally happen, and quickly? In the German election campaign, the liberal FDP’s confidence in the innovative power of companies was always contrasted with the Greens’ penchant for bans. What do you think is the solution here?
Riess: A healthy mix of both. We need the free market just as much as regulations and clear guidelines. It’s important that we all see this issue as an opportunity to secure Europe’s status as a business location in the future.
Faulstich: I can only emphasize that point. Policymakers need to establish a good regulatory framework. The market will then have to figure out exactly how to build on it, and it will. I always compare this to a soccer game: there are rules to the game and a referee, but the players ultimately decide how to play on the field.
Do you feel that the circular economy has already been sufficiently addressed as a topic in politics?
Faulstich: Unfortunately, no. If you look at the current climate protection legislation, you’ll read a lot about the energy and transport transitions, while the transition in raw materials and resources isn’t mentioned at all. The circular economy has great potential for climate protection, but unfortunately, it hasn’t been fully recognized yet. I can only hope that the new governing coalition will show more foresight here.
Could the current supply bottlenecks actually be something of a boon in this regard? Since people are realizing that this is about not “only” ecological issues, but economic ones, as well?
Riess: That’s definitely helping to drive this topic. We’ve been getting way more inquiries about options for the qualification of alternative suppliers and European production sites. Strengthening domestic production would also undoubtedly benefit both the economy and the environment, if only by eliminating long transport routes. I think this issue will remain with us in the long term, precisely because there are clear economic benefits that need only to be recognized and promoted.