Top five tips for sustainable device design
10 October 2022
Following COP26, device manufacturers are facing increasing pressure both from government and from consumers to reduce the environmental impact of their designs. There is so much to say on just the fundamental principles of sustainable design: reduce material and design for recyclability and reuse, that it can be a bit overwhelming. So here are our top five practical tips for making your devices more sustainable.
1. Avoid these culprits: Aluminium, Nylon
Nylon has about three times the embodied carbon of polyethylene, and must be recycled by the energy intensive process of chemically breaking it back down into its constituent monomers.
Metals almost always have lower embodied carbon than plastics, and are more readily recyclable. However, as far as metals go, reactive metals like titanium and aluminium take much more energy to extract than steel.
2. Minimise the number of materials
It’s no good if each part of your device is individually recyclable; if the user has to sort through a hundred tiny parts to separate plastic types, they’ll probably just bin it. Where possible use only one type of plastic, and make the device easy to dismantle. Any electronics and batteries should be easily removable for safe disposal.
3. Avoid biodegradable plastics
Counter-intuitive though it may be, biodegradable plastics can be worse for the environment than the alternatives. Firstly, some suppliers play fast and loose with the definition of biodegradability. ISO 14855 defines a process to measure biodegradability under ideal conditions, which will not be realised in compacted waste.
Even if the plastic does degrade, all that has occurred is that carbon has been released into the atmosphere rather than locked away.
4. Reduce and improve packaging
Packaging accounts for about two thirds of the UK’s plastic use and only half of it is recycled. For some industries, such as medical, packaging is often unavoidable, but can it be made easier to recycle? Make sure the packaging is a single type of clear plastic, clearly labelled, and if possible, without any paper labels.
5. Design for cost
If you’re lost for where to start, employ the same principles you would in designing something to be as cheap as possible; the philosophies don’t exactly align, but it will drive you to reduce wastage and complexity.
Bonus tip: smart devices
Smart devices can greatly improve sustainability, for example by reducing drug waste, or in the case of heavy-duty products, by charging when renewable energy is plentiful. But they also add complexity, making each device more environmentally costly, and batteries are currently difficult to recycle. Designers should include sustainability when they weigh up the pros and cons of smart devices.
For a more in-depth look at how to incorporate sustainable into your design process, check out the 5-part series by my colleague Catriona Eldridge by subscribing to our newsletter, or get in touch at email@example.com.
Omar Y. I. Shah