Tech companies are standing in the way of stronger green electronics standards in the US, according to our new report. Device manufacturers are blocking attempts to include strong criteria in electronics standards that would encourage device designs that are easier to repair, easier to upgrade, and easier to disassemble for recycling.
Published: August 3, 2017
Author: Mark Schaffer
Green standards for electronics establish a consistent set of environmental leadership criteria for the design, use, and end-of-life phases of electronics. Since their initial development, green U.S. electronics standards have successfully pushed manufacturers to incorporate key performance criteria, including requirements for recycled plastics, the reduction of hazardous materials, end-of-life management, and energy efficiency. Historically, by setting a high bar and rewarding significant advances in green design, such mandates have shaped electronics design for the better.
Yet these standards—both in and out of development—have become increasingly ineffectual, as electronics manufacturers now constitute a large voting bloc on most U.S. green standards groups. Standards are arduous to update, and the criteria are often too easy for manufacturers to achieve. Thus, electronics standards, more and more often, fail to function as tools of environmental leadership. Industry and purchasers rely on these standards for guidance in identifying sustainable products—which further perpetuates the low bar that has been set.
U.S. green standards could again lead, were they to integrate challenging, inspiring green design criteria, including (but not limited to) guidelines for increased reuse and repair. Unfortunately, manufacturers have consistently opposed stronger reuse and repair criteria. As a result, green standards have systemically failed to incorporate strong policies that would enable repair, reuse, and product life extension for electronics.
Manufacturers and other IT industry members—including chemical and plastics trade groups—hold so many positions on green electronics standards boards that they can resist leadership standards and instead approve criteria they can easily achieve.
The cycle of innovation in tech radically outpaces the development cycle for electronics standards. For example, the current 1680.1 standard for computers, includes design criteria that was written over a decade ago. Revising standards takes way too long.
Manufacturers including Apple, Blackberry, and Sony have consistently blocked meaningful criteria that would influence their product design, including strong incentives to encourage design for repair or recycling.
The current development process favors members from well-funded organizations. Participating in the standards development requires an investment of time and money—which often deters participants with fewer resources, such as non-profit organizations, small businesses, and academic experts. Manufacturers drag out the development process, bleeding non-profits of scarce resources.
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About the Author
Mark Schaffer has 20 years of experience designing and manufacturing sustainable electronics. He is a well-regarded electronics engineer and consultant, providing supply chain, environmental and sustainability consulting and project management services to organizations around the world. He has been involved in standards development for the last 14 years.
Prior to starting Schaffer Environmental LLC, Mark managed environmental programs for Dell. While at Dell, Mark advocated for the creation of the initial green standard for computers. He served on the board of advisors of the Green Electronics Council for two years during its creation, leading Dell’s internal adoption of EPEAT for their institutional products.
His consulting firm conducts Life Cycle Assessments of electronic products for manufacturers. These assessments involve teardowns and material analysis to determine a product’s overall environmental impact, including their ability to be repaired and recycled. He audits organizations’ supply chains for compliance to EPEAT requirements—as well as national and international conflict mineral, RoHS, and REACH regulations. Mark has a BS in Materials Science & Engineering from North Carolina State University and has also worked for IBM, Static Control Components, Canon, and NASA.
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Recycling expert and standards participant