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Discussion on good design and engineering to transition to a circular economy

Interviewer: Antoine Rondelet, Founder @ Ganddee

Guest: Deborah Andrews, Professor of Design for Sustainability and Circularity @ LSBU


London South Bank University (LSBU) is a public university located in Elephant and Castle, London, UK. LSBU offers a wide range of undergraduate and postgraduate courses in subjects such as business, engineering, law, health and social care. With a diverse student body and a commitment to social mobility, LSBU is known for its practical and career-focused education, as well as its strong links to industry and the local community. (More info: here)

Deborah Andrews is a Professor of Design for Sustainability and Circularity in the School of Engineering at LSBU. Deborah’s research focus is sustainable design and manufacture, the Circular Economy, Life Cycle Sustainability Assessment, user-centred design and behaviour. Deborah has been leading the CEDaCI (Circular Economy for the Data Centre Industry) project since 2018. She is an active member of the Institution of Engineering Designers and sits on the Education and Training Committee, course and professional accreditation panels. Deborah is also a Chartered Environmentalist and guest editor for a special edition of Frontiers of Sustainability journal. (More info: here)


Antoine Rondelet: What is the role of designers, and design as a discipline, in tackling the climate crisis and helping to transition to a more circular economy?

Deborah Andrews (LSBU): I’m going to answer this from very personal perspective. If you look at the history of design, I think that designers have contributed to an awful lot of the problems that we have now. Whether it was through encouraging planned obsolescence of products to increase sales, or encouraging over-consumption, i.e. the purchase of products that people don’t really need etc. I mean, it is a complex argument because of the economics. If we don’t manufacture and sell things, how does the economy function?

Having said that, I think designers should really be paying very close attention to everything that they design. Obviously everybody needs stuff, so what we need is to minimize the environmental and social adverse impacts to manufacture things we need, while at the same time, making businesses profitable, not necessarily greedily profitable, but economically sustainable. So, I think, designers have a moral imperative to do that. Particularly in view of the fact that we’ve created so many problems previously.

Designers have a lot to contribute because they should be well-informed about materials, manufacturing processes, sustainability, at different levels, and environmental impact. While there is a need to educate designers, I think the new generation of designers should be better prepared than older designers because more courses include sustainability considerations.

Also, some guidelines are now becoming legislations, like the right to repair electrical and electronic goods for example. These are going to drive a shift in approach to sustainability right across the board, as far as design goes. They’re not going to be a luxury or a nice to have feature. It’s going to be mandatory for products to be repairable. Hopefully, that will have a knock on effects in terms of making products easier to disassemble for major refurbishment upgrades and recycling the end of life as well.

Do we need more standardization to design more sustainable products (that are repairable, modular etc)? (e.g. European law to make USB-C chargers standard in Europe etc.)

I think the standardization is going to be important to make sure the products are safe. Safety is a key thing and it’s going to be quite tricky. When we talk about “rights to repair”, that’s about replacing one component with another, but we should also think about ensuring that products are easy to open and that users don’t need very expensive or too many bespoke tools to actually get into products. I think Fairphone and Framework are very brave. It’ll be very interesting to see how they manage issues around safety, because a lot of electrical and electronic products are designed not to be opened to ensure that users are safe. There may be a need to perhaps change standards and legal obligations around that. So, to your question, standardization in terms of things like health and safety of users, yes. In terms of components that you could use across different brands, I’m not sure if that’s needed. What would be really important would be to have components that you could use within the same brand across different generations of product.

I saw an article about a new Nokia phone quite recently in which they announced a phone that was easier to open etc, a bit like Fairphone. That made me chuckle when I saw it because I have this old Nokia 3310 in a box here at home, and sometimes it feels like we just go back in time because I can open my 3310, I can take the battery off etc. It’s not new technology. We’ve been doing this for a long time.

I don’t think that’s a unique feeling. My mum used to belong to an organization called the University of the Third Age. She ran the Art and Design Club, and she’s asked me to talk about various subjects, one was about the circular economy. My talk was about what we can learn from older people, learning from the past because we used to repair everything, and products were scarce. A lot of the attendees at this event were in their 70s and their 80s. They grew up during the Second World War, and they were totally comfortable repairing things and making things last. Many of the products they used were pre-electronic products, and most of these mechanical products were comparatively easy to repair.

Now, we’re constrained by ergonomics and anthropometrics, e.g. phones have to be the right size to fit between your ear and your mouth, but I think a lot of manufacturers’ argument is that if you want products to be slimmer, lighter and smaller, we should join components using adhesive to save space etc. instead of using mechanical fixings like screws and so forth, that take up space. But then it makes things incredibly difficult to disassemble. So, yeah, we can learn a lot from the past, and not the ancient past, the very recent past, definitely.

What do you look at to see whether a product is sustainable or not? Could you tell us more about operational and embodied impacts?

The operational impact, if you’re looking at electronic products for instance, is basically the amount of energy required to make a product function. That could be the amount of electricity needed to make your phone work, the gas needed by your central heating boiler, etc. It’s that “How much energy do you need to make your product function?". And then you begin to look at the embodied impacts: “What and where is the source of that energy? How is it generated?” and once you get past the energy bit, then you have to look at the materials as well. Everything that makes every physical element of the product has an embodied impact, and the embodied impact is associated with the energy used to dig up raw materials and process them into some usable form. Also, things like water use, whether it’s toxic, how much land you use, etc.

There was, a few years ago, a real interest in biofuels, for example, but they were quite controversial because very often if you’re growing crops for biofuel then you’re taking land away from food production. So this is not ideal in terms of sustainability. In many cases, it’s a sort of damage limitation or mitigation. If you have enough transparent and robust data, then you can make an informed choice about what is more or less sustainable. The problem we have as members of the public and also as members of the industry as well, is that quite a lot of the data in the mainstream it’s not absolutely accurate or, people sort of cherry-pick the good points and leave the bad points. So, this is quite difficult to choose or identify the most sustainable option unless you are really involved in environmental science, for example. This is very challenging. I think, as someone who has been working in the field for a considerable number of years now, that the data that is being produced is getting better. The methods for measuring and determining impacts etc. are also getting better, but it is an evolving science. We’ve still got an awful lot to learn.

The other challenge, of course, is that the climate societies, we’re all evolving as well. So what may have been or may have appeared to be sustainable 10–15 years ago, may not be as sustainable now, because of changes in circumstances. It’s very definitely, a sort of evolutionary process activity and decisions do change.

You’ve worked on a project related to the circular economy for the data center industry, could you explain the stakes of making data centers more circular? How unsustainable is this industry nowadays? I mean, most of the time we just go on the Internet etc. but we don’t really think about what’s going on under the hood and what impact our Google searches have on the environment.

I suppose data is just as intangible as carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. You know, if you don’t see it, how can you understand this sort of thing? So, in terms of data centers and service providers, I think the industry has an obligation to be more sustainable because we’re becoming increasingly reliant on the sector, and it is expanding. If you think about it, there’s nothing in history that compares in terms of speed and scale of expansion. From the introduction of the World Wide Web in 1989, until now, this sector has grown to approximately seven million data centers around the world which is absolutely astonishing, and 62% or more of the population are connected digitally. While this varies according to different sources, it’s estimated that data center energy consumption is 1% to 3% of the electricity generated globally, and it’s going up. Even though individual data centers are becoming more efficient, because the number of data centers keeps increasing, the industry’s consumption is going up. Again, while it depends on which source you look at, the CO2 emissions of this industry are alleged to be comparable to those emitted, by the pre-Covid19 airline industry. So, it is considerable, and saying, “Oh, it’s only 1% of global CO2 emissions” is nonsense. That doesn’t mean anything, because we all know that 1% is a hell of a lot.

The data center industry has been focused on energy operation and energy efficiency, which has a lot to do with legislative drivers. So, today, big organizations say, “Oh, we’re really green, we’re really sustainable or net-zero”, because they’ve built wind turbines, solar farms etc. to power their data centers, but that’s only a fraction of the story because of course, every center, particularly large ones, contain millions of servers which are, in essence computers without screens, which store and process data. Manufacturing these servers comes at a cost to the environment. And then, there’s networking equipment, which ensures connectivity in the center and out to the outside world. But also the infrastructure of the building itself and all the mechanical electrical equipment inside etc.

Water consumption is also a big issue. The level of impact of a data center, depends on very much where the center is located. Some data centers use water cooling, for example, others use air cooling. If you’re located in the Nordic countries, then water isn’t such an issue because there is a lot around that can be used for hydroelectricity, for instance. If your data center is located in Southern Europe or, say, North Africa or Asia, then the impact of water use is more significant for those data centers. So, from the operational side, there are lots of concerns, but then we need to think about things like materials and so forth.

On average, a server weights about 26 kilograms. The main material for the casing will be steel, copper, aluminum etc. Then you have all the electronics with the printed circuit boards and the disk drives which includes magnets, which may be made of neodymium or dysprosium. Many of the materials used to manufacture servers and electronic equipment have been identified as critical. Not only is their supply chain subject to potential disruption, but they are also of high economic and technical significance, and a lot of these critical materials actually originate from China - although there are other places like Central Africa, etc. Factors like the amount of material that is still in the Earth’s crust and the current recycling rates, i.e. how much is currently reclaimed to put back into the system, all make these materials’ supply critical. So, until now, the data center industry has focused on reducing their operational impact and hasn’t really considered the embodied impact.

That concern around critical components is being driven by things like the EU Circular Economy Action Plan, the UK Circular Economy Package, and so forth, that I think legislation will come out of. It’s beginning to trickle down slowly, but the biggest challenge we have at the moment, and it applies to all electrical and electronic goods, is that we don’t have a good recycling infrastructure. Only 17% of EEE, Electrical and Electronic Equipment, is formally collected and formally recycled. There’s a massive amount of stuff that goes on informal resale and informal recycling, which a lot of that is shockingly, unhealthily hazardous, you know, done in really dire working conditions overseas. We currently don’t have a good recycling infrastructure at all, and so we’re creating more and more of this e-waste. We’re currently producing about 50 million tons a year. If we carry on doing what we’re doing, it will increase to 120 million tons by 2050.

There are two ways of tackling that. In the short term and something that should go on anyway in the longer term, is to extend product lives, so that you keep things in service for as long as technically and economically viable. Then, the next thing, of course, is making sure that there is a really good recycling infrastructure. Not only to deal with the stuff that’s coming through the system now, but to deal with the stuff that we’ve already buried in the ground, you know, the millions of tons of economically and technically valuable materials that have been dumped. So, it would be good to be able to extract those and clean them up and reuse them. So, in terms of sustainability, the data center sector’s awareness about the physical challenge or the challenges of physical products and materials is increasing, but the sector is still focusing on operational energy efficiency.

What are the main challenges to e-waste recycling and re-using? Can we really have 2nd-hand servers for data centers? Isn’t it too risky in terms of security (industrial spying etc.) and reliance (2nd-hand servers may be more prone to failure, which is hard to evaluate)? Do you see barriers for such 2nd hand market, e.g. trust? I mean, if I buy a pair of shoes from you, the worst that can happen to me is maybe for the shoe to degrade faster than I thought. With a server, however, you might sell me a server with a malware or something like that. Goods aren’t necessarily always equal w.r.t trust, making them more or less amenable to a 2nd hand market.

Yeah, I mean there is a huge issue around data security. One approach is to simply take storage devices hard drives or solid state drives and crush them, chop them up. That’s great because the data is definitely being destroyed, whether be it legitimate data or something like malware. The problem though is that you end up with a whole bag of bits which sticks to the magnets, which makes recycling very challenging. But it definitely works if it’s for data destruction.

Another approach that we’re advocating for through the current CEDaCI project is to support data wiping, or for the technical term: data sanitization. There are various means of doing that, e.g. by using software, and a number of companies are certainly making progress in this direction. I think the biggest barrier to that is the perceptual or psychological barrier. If you’ve chopped something up, permanently damaged, broken it, and you end up with a pack of bits and pieces, you know that your data has been destroyed. If you’re relying on software and other technologies, then how to get that reassurance? It’s quite a big challenge. But the problem is not just with data security. It’s very odd that there are certain products that we accept buying second hand, because we’ve always done it. Old properties, for instance, there are hundreds of thousands if not millions of them in the UK, and you don’t think twice about buying an old property. Same with second-hand cars. You know, there’s a very robust market for second-hand cars. But for some other equipment, that’s very different. I mean, I certainly wouldn’t like to buy a second hand toothbrush, but I think there are some prejudices that we should be overcoming, vis-à-vis other electrical and electronic, particularly IT equipment.

It’s quite difficult to get guarantees or warranties for some second life equipment. And I know within the data center industry, there are organizations working in the field of secondary products, the secondary market. We’re working very hard with legislative bodies, e.g. the EU, to develop robust warranty schemes so that if you, as a consumer, buy a second life server and something goes wrong, then there could be some kind of accountability for that. So, there are some physical barriers, but I think that psychological barriers are perhaps more challenging in a way.

There’s also a huge amount of pressure as well from the original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), who continually say “New is best”, you know, that an old piece of equipment can’t possibly perform as well as a new piece. Well, it depends what your performance requirements are. Maybe a good analogy to think about - and I’m not advocating for petrol cars - is a Formula One vehicle that you use to go to 200 miles an hour. Such vehicle is designed for a very specific purpose. Now, if you’re driving your children from A to B through a town, you certainly don’t need a Formula One performing vehicle. You could use a small electric and energy efficient vehicle that would do the job very well. It’s the same with a lot of electronic equipment. Generally what you need is the sort of small hatchback family car version of your piece of electronic equipment rather than a Formula One version. But OEMs continually push the Formula One piece of equipment rhetoric, because they want to sell new stuff with more knob styles and maybe a tiny bit more performance. So, I think, one of the other perceptual barriers is about recognizing your own requirements and what equipment can meet that. Then, you’ll realize that an awful lot of second life electronic equipment, like old data center equipment, can certainly do the job very well.

Thank you very much for all these answers. Before we wrap up, is there something you’re working on, a book, a paper, a project, that you’d like to tell us about and share with the community?

A colleague, Beth Whitehead, and I have just co-authored a book chapter about design and circularity in the value chain. We’ve been very pleased to be invited to contribute to this book that’s been published by the Royal Society of Chemistry.


Further reading


We originally published this interview on OCRA, a climate forum and community that we started. This interview has been moved to our blog following the closure of the OCRA forum.

Ganddee interviews offer an opportunity to put some guest community members at the center stage. During these interviews we ask questions to our expert guest to better understand their work, learn from them, and understand how they contribute to the fight against climate change. We hope these interviews will serve as an invitation to expend the discussion on the forum.

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