The hands are holding electric cables in the air
Sergey /
2022-01-03 publication

Untapped Potential

When it comes to climate protection and nature conservation, there is still far too little discussion of sustainable products and sustainable production – let alone a circular economy. If you ask Prof. Martin Faulstich and Dr. Michael Riess, this is a mistake.

Interview by Martin Schmitz-Kuhl

VDE dialog - the technology magazine

How unsettling are the issues of climate change and global warming for you personally?

Prof. Martin Faulstich: The first Club of Rome report will be 50 years old next spring, and we’ve been talking about environmental protection ever since. The term “sustainability” was invented in 1987, so it’s also been around for 35 years. And the first global climate conference was in Berlin in 1995, over 25 years ago. If you think about how much the issue has been discussed and then consider that we’re now not only emitting more CO2 into the atmosphere than ever before, but also consuming more resources all the time, you don’t have to be a green fanatic to find it all very disturbing.

Dr. Michael Riess: I totally agree. If we don’t manage to change now, we have to assume that the average temperature in Germany will rise by another 4.5 degrees by the end of the century – and that summer temperatures in Germany will regularly reach 40 degrees Celsius. That’s definitely worrying!

So there’s a lot to do in a wide variety of areas. Various sources indicate that every person in Germany produces between 10 and 20 kilograms of electronic waste annually, and that figure is also rising. The best measure against this would be devices that don’t break down so quickly, wouldn’t it?

Faulstich: Yes, of course. A professional drill from a well-known Liechtenstein toolmaker certainly has a considerably longer durability and is therefore more sustainable today than a no-name product from a hardware store. But it also costs far more, and not every customer wants to pay for it. In addition, with fast-moving consumer goods like cell phones, manufacturers don’t even aim for long-term usability since their products will be technically outdated much sooner than that anyway.

Dr. Michael Riess in the laboratory

Dr. Michael Riess: "It is important that we all see this issue as an opportunity to secure Europe as a business location in the future."

| Rainer Christel / DKE

Wouldn’t testing device durability be a job for the VDE Institute?

Riess: Yes, and that’s exactly what we’re doing. When devices and individual components bear the VDE certification mark, customers can rest assured that the products really have been thoroughly tested and guarantee a high level of quality. 

Faulstich: But you don’t issue your own sustainability label, do you?

Riess: Not yet, but we have labels that relate to the subject in many ways. In addition to the aforementioned VDE certification mark, the EU energy consumption and efficiency label in particular indicates how a device performs, which naturally includes sustainability criteria. As for a dedicated sustainability label, though, there’s the EPEAT ecolabel for electronics, which is granted by the US Global Electronics Council. We’re cooperation partners in that initiative.

While there’s no evidence of planned product obsolescence, it’s clear when you look at appliances like washing machines that the seal material, for instance, probably won’t last for 20 years.

Riess: That’s something we’ve observed, yes. In terms of requirements, however, we focus primarily on the corresponding standards, so we can only check whether components meet the requirements to get a certification mark. There’s no standard that specifically examines the obsolescence of a product. But who knows? There might be in the future.

Let’s go through the other points that would make a product more sustainable. In addition to durability, this would include reparability. Are there no methods or options for making this mandatory for manufacturers?

Faulstich: I’m also co-chairman of the Resources Commission at the German Environment Agency, and we’re discussing this topic there, as well. Legal regulation would be difficult here, so it’s more likely to be a voluntary label. However, people should be aware that while it’s technically possible to design devices to be easier to repair, there’s still the question of whether this would be worthwhile. Considering the hourly rates of skilled tradespeople in Germany, a repair can quickly become more expensive than a new device.

Riess: Yes, that’s definitely the biggest problem. If an electrical product costs only a few euros to manufacture, it will never make economic sense to repair it. And then there’s the issue of software, which is applying to more and more devices. It’s not just smartphones or computers anymore. All of a sudden, your TV is no longer compatible and can’t be updated.

But wouldn’t that be the best way to make devices more sustainable? Nowadays you’ll get laughed at in a store if you show up wanting to get your TV repaired.

Faulstich: In that respect, we’re completely in agreement. If devices are to be usable for a long time, they have to be easier to repair. This would require an entirely different mindset in design – a modular approach, for example. That wouldn’t make devices more cost-effective, though.

Riess: That’s why we need to create new incentives. One example is the French reparability index that was launched recently. The corresponding labels include a number score and a repair symbol whose color gives the consumer a quick impression of a device’s reparability. This also offers manufacturers an advantage over their competitors, of course.

Wouldn’t reparability testing also be a good field for the VDE Institute?

Riess: It already is, actually. We also helped develop EN 45554, the first European repair standard, which was adopted last year. If you want to have a label like this, you have to ensure comparability.

Faulstich: That’s why the new circular economy standardization roadmap is so important. Reparability will naturally increase if manufacturers agree to use common standard components. They like to give technical reasons for why that isn’t possible – and it’s admittedly also a major interference in product design – but the example of cell phone charging cables shows that this is certainly doable. Another sign of progress is that the topic is no longer being negotiated exclusively in the Ministry of the Environment; it has now also reached the Ministry for Economic Affairs with the new dialog platform on recycling raw materials. This is really important because previous environmental, waste management and recycling legislation has always started at the end of a product’s useful life. All the stuff we’re discussing here has to be considered at the beginning of production, or even at the design stage.

Prof. Dr. Martin Faulstich

Prof. Dr. Martin Faulstich: "The resource turnaround has hardly been an issue so far. I can only hope that the new governing coalition will show more foresight here."

| Stephan Rumpf + Marina Cathomas

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.

Prof. Dr. Martin Faulstich and Dr. Michael Riess - Stephan Rumpf + Marina Cathomas, Rainer Christel / DKE

Left: The engineering scientist and political consultant Prof. Martin Faulstich is the Chair of Resource and Energy Systems at TU Dortmund and director at INZIN, the Institute for the Future of Industrial Society. He was also chairman of the German Advisory Council on the Environment from 2008 to 2016.

Right: Dr. Michael Riess, a chemist, has been involved in the analysis of electronic products and their recyclability for his entire professional life – first in industry, and later at the VDE Testing and Certification Institute in Offenbach, Germany, where he is Head of Chemical Product Safety and Sustainability.