New initiatives for creating traceable electronic products

In a world which relies more and more on electronics, many industrial sectors are working on creating closed-loop recycling systems. From small-scale local initiatives to new legislation on an international level, “thinking green” is starting to gain ground both in the political arena and the business world. For it to truly take off, however, the many different industries in the electronics sector have to take some initiatives. One such initiative is KEEP.

KEEP, an innovation project run by Chalmers Industriteknik, is working on developing an ID system that can trace electrical and electronic products. The project is financed by the Swedish innovation agency Vinnova and was launched in 2018. It is run on a co-operative basis and has involved a number of stakeholders from all the sectors involved: production, re-use, final use and recycling. The idea is to create a circular system through which you can follow a product throughout its entire life cycle. The information this would provide would be useful to both companies and consumers.

The aim of the project is to develop a system using unique ID labels that can be scanned with a mobile phone to open a web-based product information page. Here, you are meant to find information ranging from how and when the product was made and the working conditions for those involved in assembling it to the product’s environmental footprint and any product-specific recycling instructions. The idea is to provide consumers with useful data so that they can make informed decisions; such data being something that is generally lacking on the second-hand market today.

There are certain challenges, however. For example, one requirement is that the collection and sharing of product data should be done according to a standardised process. Today, this is largely done on a manual basis.

There are companies, though, that prioritise being progressive and bringing about new developments, like the loudspeaker producer Transparent Sound. They have adopted a fully transparent business concept (in abstract as well as concrete terms) and made their production process open and transparent throughout. Consumers who scan their product’s QR code and take part of the information receive an extra 12 months’ guarantee free of charge. In this way, being environmentally conscious can become a sales incentive. It also makes good financial sense. If you can trace the journey a product makes throughout its lifetime, you will be able to chart its behaviour, like how frequently it is being used, its overall lifespan and whether it is repairable. This kind of information will enable companies to create better and more sustainable products, which will in turn increase the companies’ competitive edge.

In the rest of the EU, additional efforts are also being made through what’s known as “The Green Deal”. The European Climate Law is working on a “product passport” which shows the origins of a product as well as the way it has been structured, its repairability and to what extent it can be disassembled. The law aims at seeing a climate-neutral Europe by the year 2050.

Naturally, this also concerns the recycling sector. According to Fredrik Benson from El-Kretsen, traceability is the next obvious producer responsibility step. At El-Kretsen, we could for example become more active in the reuse sector by allowing our processes to locate spare parts that can be reused. Fredrik also points out that we should be talking about “resources” rather than “waste”. In this case, the term “resources” applies to materials, energy and time alike. By handling our resources more efficiently and creating better traceability, we can do recycling in a smarter way. For example, if we know how a product has been made, we can rationalise the recycling process. In other words, the more information we have about a product, the better we can design its recycling fate. This is what we refer to as “Producer responsibility 3.0”.

Read more about KEEP and try a demo version of their prototype here.

Published 2021-08-26