A Common Sense Approach to Sustainability and E-Waste
By Simon Broomhead, Commercial Director, Active EMS
Being more sustainable is a target for the majority of companies in the UK. As well as the environmental benefits, less waste and better practices just make good business sense. Most companies start off on their route to sustainability through compliance with legislation such as ISO 14001 and ISO 9001. This legislation provides guidance on how to be more environmentally friendly and reduce waste. However, it is targeted at manufacturers across the industry, both large and small. In reality, every business is different and most manufacturers offer a range of services outside their key manufacturing competency. To become truly sustainable means not stopping at certification, but going on and examining every aspect of the business to find out where it can become more sustainable. It also means looking outside your own company to your customers and your supply chain.
At Active EMS, we have already taken many steps to become more environmentally friendly, but we know that is only a start. We look at our drive for sustainability as an ongoing process and continuously look to make improvements. Along the way, we have had some real successes, for example, all of the electricity consumed by the company comes from renewable sources and we try to recycle at least 99% of our waste.
Our sustainability drive requires full participation from every one of our staff, customers, and suppliers. Suppliers are a very important factor in our environmental aims. For example, they provide assurance that none of the materials we use come from conflict zones. We also only source components from authorised distributors to prevent counterfeiting, which can often be hard to detect.
The majority of Active EMS’ customers value traceability and accountability as much as we do. Fortunately, most of them have stable products and established routes to market. Customers like these make reaching our own environmental targets much easier. However, occasionally we are approached by new clients for projects that may not have had sustainability as a top priority during their design. Usually, when we discuss the business and environmental benefits, they are keen to work with us to meet these goals.
We always try to help these new customers to create a product that will minimise its environmental impact during production, distribution, use, and end of life disposal. For instance, a new client recently approached us with a prototype design for an emergency lighting back-up battery. The company knew the market well, and had ensured that there was a demand for the product, but the prototype that they had developed was not designed for efficient manufacture. We worked closely with the customer to turn their concept into a packaged, viable, class-leading product.
The example above involved using our in-depth knowledge of manufacturing processes and experience in designing for manufacture to provide a better all-round solution. It is possible to solve many other situations using the same methods, but there are occasions when the answer is not so straightforward and a common sense route has to be taken to find the most sustainable outcome. Electronic waste or e-waste is a good example of a problem that doesn’t have a simple solution.
E-waste is electrical or electronic equipment that has been discarded at the end of its useable lifetime. The problem is exceptionally bad in the UK, which has been found to be the second largest producer of e-waste per person in Europe behind Norway. In a 2019 report by the UN, the UK was estimated to have generated 23.9kg of e-waste per person, which comes to almost 1.6 million tonnes in total. In that year, the same report found that there were 53.6 million tonnes of e-waste generated globally. E-waste that is not reused or recycled usually finds its way into landfill or is disposed of inappropriately. This is a real problem as e-waste is more dangerous than most other forms of waste. It contains high levels of toxins, such as lead and mercury, and these can leech out of the waste and contaminate water sources and soil.
On the one hand, we generate too much e-waste, while on the other, companies are keen to replace existing models with newer, more efficient products. In this situation, compromise can provide the most sustainable outcome. To give one example, we recently had a customer who contacted us about the refurbishment of a unit for the insurance industry. The unit typically works on a twelve-month cycle. Refurbishing the product, and future-proofing it by making it capable of software upgrades allowed the customer to refresh the units and send them out for another year of active use. The alternative to this would be to retire the old products. By extending the equipment’s operational lifespan, we prevented the components become obsolete while upgrading them to fulfil today’s needs.
Another Active EMS customer is a company that designs and manufactures products which monitor the efficiency of batteries. The company is one of the world’s largest suppliers of forklift truck battery charging and monitoring devices. Forklifts use large rechargeable lead-acid batteries that have not changed a lot in 70 years. These batteries have a secondary purpose – in addition to powering the vehicle, they are very heavy, and that weight provides a counterbalance for the load. Lead-acid batteries are not environmentally friendly in the slightest, but the alternatives are just as bad. Diesel, petrol, and LPG engines create fumes, which are also bad for the environment or workforce, especially when inside. Until a better solution is developed, lead-acid batteries are here to stay. Keeping those batteries as efficient as possible and prolonging their operational lifetime is the responsibility of our customer. Our work together ensures that the batteries can operate for as long as possible before needing replacement.
These last two examples featured in this article may not be stereotypical stories of sustainability, but they are actual problems that occur in industry that have to be dealt with. E-waste is becoming a real problem around the world and sometimes we have to work with older technologies because the alternatives can be worse. Refurbishment and reuse may not be ideal solutions, but they may be the most sustainable ones when every other factor is taken into account.