How can IEC shape the circular economy?

IEC ACEA and TC 111 take a close look at material efficiency and the circular economy

From mounting piles of waste to the depletion of natural resources, the current modes of production and consumption are unsustainable. Based on the current linear economic model, products are made, used and discarded. Challenging this linear model, a new economic model, known as the circular economy (CE), is gaining traction.

The circular economy calls for a regenerative and restorative approach to products
The circular economy calls for a regenerative and restorative approach to products and materials (Photo:

Within the IEC, the Advisory Committee on environmental aspects (ACEA), which provides guidance to the Standardization Management Board (SMB) on issues related to the environment, and IEC Technical Committee 111, which develops horizontal standards related to environmental issues, are examining the requirements for the circular economy.

Defining the circular economy and material efficiency

The circular economy calls for a paradigm shift across society in which products, components and materials are viewed as regenerative and restorative. It reassesses how resources are managed and how waste is perceived throughout the entire lifecycle of a product from its initial design to its use, repair, reuse, remanufacture and, finally, its transformation into parts for new products.

According to the Chair of ACEA, Solange Blaszkowski, “the circular economy seeks to encourage the development and use of products that can last longer, be easily repaired and eventually remanufactured”. But, as she notes, “it asks for a business model, reverse logistics and favourable societal and regulatory conditions. You can develop products that are easy to repair, refurbish or remanufacture, but you also need to have a business model in place on repair, refurbishment or remanufacturing. A reverse cycle is needed so that manufacturers can retrieve products for refurbishing or reuse their components to remanufacture new products. Users must also be willing to have their products repaired or buy a refurbished one”.

Material efficiency (ME) is an essential part of the circular economy. It consists of the conservation of materials by making products more durable, resource-efficient and facilitates the reuse or recycling of parts at the end of the life. As Blazkowski notes, “the idea of material efficiency is that we cannot keep using up the Earth’s resources because very soon we will run out and we will not have them any more to make new products and new technologies. Therefore, what we need to do is make better use of materials that are currently already in use”.

Role of standards

Standards can serve as an important tool to promote the circular economy. They can, for example, provide methods to measure the durability or upgradeability of a product. They can assess the ease with which a product can be repaired or recycled. And, they can ensure the quality of the recycled materials.

Standards must set requirements to guarantee the safety and performance of products, including when, in the future, products will be expected to remain in use for much longer. Issues such as product upgrades and an increased number of repair cycles will need to be addressed. Standards will also need to take into account that products, in the future, will contain increased amounts of recycled material and reused components.

Already, TC 111 has issued several publications related to the environmental impact of electric and electronic equipment. IEC 62430 specifies the requirements and procedures to integrate environmental aspects into the design and development of products as well as the materials and components from which they are composed. A new edition, developed together with ISO, is expected to be published later this year. While this standard focuses on ecological aspects of the design of products, it does not address material efficiency or the circularity of material usage. Plans for the development of a new standard that includes circularity aspects on environmental conscious design are ongoing.

Two technical reports, IEC TR 62824 and IEC TR 62635, also issued by TC 111, provide guidelines on material efficiency for the ecological design of products and the calculation of recyclability rate for electrical and electronic equipment, respectively. TC 111 has also published standards related to the use of raw materials, most notably IEC 62474 which defines the requirements for reporting the substances and materials used in electronic and electrical products.

However, the IEC is faced with the need to undertake further work. This is the outcome of the survey undertaken by ACEA to understand what guidance the IEC community may need and a study by TC 111 on the status of the circular economy and material efficiency around the world. According to Blaszkowski, “the IEC needs to focus on all aspects of the circular economy, not only to protect the planet but also to protect people and deliver high-performance technology they rely upon”.

ACEA survey

To better understand the level of knowledge about the concepts of the circular economy and material efficiency, ACEA conducted a survey which was sent to the chairs and secretaries of all IEC technical committees (TCs), sub-committees (SCs) and systems committees (SyC).

Results from the survey demonstrate that certain aspects of the circular economy and material efficiency, such as product design optimization and recyclability, are directly relevant to the work of many TCs/SCs/SyCs, even though this may not always be recognized as such.

It also highlighted the areas where TCs/SCs/SyCs require further support. For example, TCs/SCs/SyCs need to understand how to balance between making products that withstand increased number of repair cycles and contain increased number of reused components while still ensure that they perform well and remain safe. Trade-offs may also be necessary between making products last longer and minimizing their energy consumption. In some cases, repairing a product may not be advisable if the associated costs are greater than the value of the product or have the potential for causing harm to the person making the repairs.

According to Richard Hughes, a member of ACEA, “committees need to ask themselves how they can best contribute to a circular economy. How can they address the issue of safety within the context of products lasting longer or being made from parts that have been used before? What requirements should be put in place for products that are repaired or remanufactured? These issues will need to be addressed as part of the circular economy”.

As a next step, ACEA will provide further guidance on issues related to the circular economy and material efficiency. A webinar on these topics will be available later in the year and a workshop is expected to take place during the IEC General Meeting in Shanghai on 19 October 2019.

In addition, as part of its responsibility for updating IEC Guide 109 on the environmental considerations when developing standards, ACEA will extend it to include relevant aspects of the circular economy and material efficiency.

TC 111 activities

In its role in developing horizontal standards related to environmental issues, TC 111 has begun exploratory work into the circular economy. As a first step, it issued a study report with recommendations on possible standardization activities within TC 111.

The report provided an overview on the status of the circular economy and material efficiency in Japan, China, Europe and Korea with the aim of determining whether harmonization is beneficial at a global level. It focused on the policies in these countries towards 13 issues related to CE and ME including the durability, resource efficiency, repairablity and recyclability of products.

According to Christophe Garnier, Chair of TC 111, “this report shows that the circular economy is happening in many parts of the world. It is an area in which we plan to open new work items taking into account the results of the survey as well as any other standardization activities being undertaken so as not to create overlap”.

Because the concept of the circular economy and material efficiency are relatively new, it is not currently well-addressed in standardization. To address this, the report recommends the introduction of a new concept, Circularity Design, which focuses on material circularity. It recommends the development of a new standard focused on circularity design of electric and electronic equipment. As noted by Garnier, “this is a draft horizontal standard that will put the circularity into environmentally conscious design”.