Applying standards to the circular economy

Material efficiency during the product use and waste phases

The circular economy calls for a radical shift in production and consumption. Continual cycles recover and restore products, components and materials through strategies such as reuse, repair, remanufacture and, ultimately, recycling. It is a systemic approach to managing resources.

Infographic of material efficiency
Defining the hierarchy of material efficiency

The circular economy is a broad concept that includes social and economic aspects that are beyond the scope of IEC standardization work. However, the IEC can address aspects related to the use and preservation of materials, i.e. aspects related to material efficiency.

Material efficiency is an essential part of the circular economy. It consists of the preservation of materials by making products more durable and repairable. It also facilitates the recovery and recycling of material at the end of the product life. The ultimate objective of material efficiency is to keep materials in use for as long as possible - and potentially forever.

Material efficiency can be placed into a hierarchy during a product’s use and waste phases. The most favourable strategies call for the design of products associated with a longer product life using the least amount of natural resources, while the least favourable strategies represent the loss of a material resource by incinerating the material and recovering its energy. In a truly circular economy, landfills are not an acceptable option.

Hierarchy in the make and use phases

The highest value is given to strategies associated with longer product life and the minimal use of natural resources. Products should be constructed to consume the least amount of resources and be designed to last for very long periods of time. In the use phase, strategies are identified to keep materials in use by extending the lifetime of a product.

Strategies associated with making the product can be extending the lifetime of products or using less raw materials. This is possible by designing products that make use of fewer raw materials and that can last for very long periods of time.

Strategies associated with the use phase of the products are developed such that the lifetime can be extended through for example, reuse, repair and upgrades, as well as refurbishment and the remanufacture of products. However, repair is preferred over refurbishment since the product is only minimally changed and thus fewer resources and energy are needed. With a repair, the product provides the same function, and resources are only used to bring it back to working condition. With refurbishment, however, additional resources are needed to bring the product to its original condition in addition to the resources needed for the resale, delivery and installation of the product.

Hierarchy in the waste phase

When a product reaches the waste phase, much of the value of the material has already been lost since the product is no longer in use.

While it is possible to keep the materials of the product in use through recycling, a significant loss in the value of the product has occurred. Recycling should therefore be viewed as an option of last resort since significant amounts of resources and energy will be necessary not only to recycle the materials themselves, but also to make a new product from the recycled materials.

As can be expected, the greatest loss of materials occurs when the material is incinerated and the energy recovered, or when it is disposed in a landfill since it is no longer in use: the circular cycle is broken.

Designing products for material efficiency

Manufacturers can address material efficiency when designing their products. Each stage of the use and waste phases of a product should be taken into consideration to allow for material efficiency to be facilitated.

In the design phase, manufacturers should consider the materials used in the construction of a product. For example, they can try to reduce the amount of materials used by optimizing the product design, and by selecting recycled materials or reused components. Focusing on the use phase, products should be designed in such a way that their lifetime can be extended by making them easy to repair and upgrade or reuse. Since products will be reused (including refurbishment or remanufacture), and thus have multiple owners, manufacturers should also facilitate upgrades of soft- and hardware and the removal of sensitive data. Also, parts should be designed to endure multiple cleaning and dis- and reassembly cycles.

Products should be designed for an efficient end-of-life. This means that useful materials and components can be easily and safely recuperated by, for instance, making the product easy to disassemble.

How standards can help

The IEC is examining the requirements for material efficiency.

To facilitate products to last longer, standards are needed to ensure that, amongst others, product safety, performance and reliability are sufficiently taken into account. Issues such as data removal and security must also be considered as products are reused and change ownership. Moreover, a holistic approach is needed to ensure that the protection of the environment is not detrimental to areas such as product safety, EMC and performance.

Legislation is expected to require the increased use of used parts as well as products that can more easily be repaired or remanufactured. We will need standardized methods and tools to assess aspects such as the proportion of reused components or recycled content in a product, and how to assess the ease (or difficulty) with which a product can be repaired or remanufactured. Also, standards will be needed to guarantee the properties of the used material, as well as to define the requirements for parts reliability. 

Within the IEC, several committees have developed standards that support material efficiency for electrical and electronic products. Some examples include:

  • IEC TR 62635 with information on product end of life, including the recyclability rate calculation.
  • IEC TR 62824 with guidance about material efficiency considerations in the eco-design of products.
  • IEC 62309 which examines the dependability of products containing used parts.
  • IEC 63077 which specifies the process for ensuring the performance and safety of refurbished medical imaging equipment.

Additional standards are currently under development. For example, in TC 111 a proposal for a new standard to assess the proportion of reused components in products is currently under vote. TC 111 is also preparing a standard covering principles of product circularity in environmental conscious design while TC 62 and TC 2 are developing standards on the refurbishment of medical equipment and rotating machinery, respectively.

New standards covering requirements for material efficiency in the design of products, such as circular ready design, are needed and plans are underway to start such standardization work in the IEC.

Educating the IEC community

The Advisory Committee on environmental aspects (ACEA) provides guidance to the Standardization Management Board (SMB) on issues related to the environment, including the circular economy and material efficiency. ACEA has been informing the IEC community about the circular economy and the role of standards.

ACEA Chair Solange Blaszkowski together with ACEA Taskforce lead Jens Giegerich recently held an IEC Academy webinar, which provided an overview of the key principles of the circular economy and material efficiency and how they are impacting standardization. The full audio and presentation of the webinar, including answers to questions submitted by participants, are available on the IEC website.