Bright Spot: Seeking Safety for Environmental and Human Health

Article By : Michael Kirschner 

Can you imagine if we competed on product safety? We should not be competing on product environmental and human health safety.

Fundamentally we should not be competing on product environmental and human health safety. Like classical product safety (thermal, electrical, mechanical, etc.), the effect on the user and their environment should be negligible or even positive. Can you imagine if we competed on product safety?

Rather, product environmental and human health safety is usually presented today as feel-good emotional touchstones that may make one brand’s product more compelling to people than a functionally equivalent one from a different brand.

Last month I said “We as an industry certainly must be much more aggressive in our approaches.” The need for industry-level think tanks and consortia to devise and drive industry-wide approaches for any given aspect of electronics has, in my opinion, not been so strong since the American creation of Sematech back in the 1980s when it looked to the USA like Japan was going to run away with semiconductor technology. Right now it doesn’t look like anybody is going to run away with circular and sustainable technology in the electronics industry. Yes there are bright spots, but how do we turn these spots into a fabric so the entire industry can circularize products in a relatively consistent and efficient manner?

Let’s take a look at some of these bright spots:

HP: I already mentioned HP’s long-running successful implementation of a closed-loop system for recycling of its ink jet cartridge plastics. HP’s 2019 sustainable impact reportdescribes the extraordinary breadth of environmental and social issues it is addressing, including collecting, recycling and incorporating 1.7 million pounds of ocean-bound plastics into certain products, achieving zero deforestation associated with HP-brand paper, and including 21.5% postconsumer recycled content plastic, on average, into business PCs and displays for a total of over 25, 000 tons in 2019. There’s much more to find in the report.

Google: “All of the new Pixel and Next products are designed with recycled material” —that Google says “design with recycled material” is the key message I want to deliver here: to use recycled material — particularly plastics — in your products you have to design with that in mind. To design with recycled materials you have to define that as a product goal in your Market Requirements Doc (MRD) and define how it will be implemented and achieved in your Product Requirements Doc (PRD).

While defining a supply chain that can achieve 100% recycled metals presents challenges beyond simply saying “get us 100% recycled aluminum” to your sheet metal house, using recycled (particularly post-consumer) plastics, which Google targets to be at least 50% of the plastic content across their product portfolio by 2025, presents a significantly greater challenge today: certain functional properties will differ and the supply chain will have little resemblance to virgin material supply chains.

Apple: Apple has invested in significant environmental, chemical and toxicological expertise and it has had a significant impact on their products and their perceived “greenness” in the market. I particularly want to point out their 2016 white paper called “Integrating Toxicological Assessments in Material Selection for Apple Products.” This is a must-read, as far as I’m concerned. Incorporating this level of analysis to the supply chain affects the materials and components engineers have to choose from in a given design challenge — in some ways it will narrow the safe design space; in other ways it can expand the scope of potential choices.

There are other “bright spots” in the industry that I don’t have the space to get into here, including Dell, Microsoft, the Clean Electronics Production Network (CEPN) and iNEMI. The latter two I will cover next month: these consortia may present a path toward the vision of broad industry adoption of environmental and human health safety across the entire product lifecycle.

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