From Computer Case to Toaster: Re-imagining Design

Serendipitous recall

Serendipitous recall

Recently I’ve attended several events that have called upon the role of designers in steering us towards greater sustainability. As I leafed through my diary this A5 poster popped out, reminding me of some amazing design for sustainability I’d seen at the London Design Festival this autumn (more below).

A less enchanting thought also came to mind: our global electronics industry is a market failure blunder.


And here are 8 reasons why (check out my previous blog posts for more detail):

  1. E-waste is the world’s fastest growing waste type.
  2. It is the most complex and toxic type of waste.
  3. Recycling rates for e-waste are shockingly low- about 90% of the world’s e-waste is not recycled.
  4. At least 75% of the world’s e-waste is exported to developing countries for ‘backyard’ recycling.
  5. Illegal e-waste recyclers in developing countries are subject to pollution and health hazards.
  6. Electronic goods are often replaced before their material end-of-life, due to market demand for innovation.
  7. The legal system for dealing with e-waste effectively remains immature.
  8. Developing countries lack appropriate recycling systems for e-waste, but simultaneously are driving global demand.

Broadly speaking, the electronics sector can be described as a ‘take-waste-dispose’ model (McKinsey & Company 2012). As the report Towards a Circular Economy states: “The ‘take-make-dispose’ model relies on large quantities of easily accessible resources and energy, and as such is increasingly unfit for the reality in which it operates”. Under “business as usual” circumstances, the issues listed above will be compounded by the growing demand for electronic goods from population growth: the global middle class is set to swell by 2 billion today, to 5 billion in 2030 (Pezzini, 2012).

Design: a key intervention point

There is a pressing need to decouple economic growth from the dependence on resources and the degradation of natural capital (Fischer-Kowalski & Swilling 2011). For long-term economic, social and environmental sustainability to flourish within the electronics sector, current production and consumption patterns cannot continue.

So imagine if we could produce a lightweight system of production that produces little waste, uses materials and energy efficiently and produces social value whilst limiting its damage to the environment.

This is exactly what designers at Degross have done, by designing “an easily disassembled computer case (no bolts, no screws and no glue were used) by using pre designed embedded parts within the hardware to assemble a second cycle product: a toaster in this example.”

C'est quoi? C'est le toaster that was once a computer case

C’est quoi? C’est le toaster that was once a computer case

Through intention, design can eliminate waste in the production of products. Principles such as design for remanufacture, reuse, or disassembly are being evolved but currently lack application in practice and research (Grey & Charter, 2007). These design principles allow for increased recovery of material at the product’s end-of-life, with the intention that it will be used in other production chains. The onus is on using high quality materials that can be cycled through various production cycles, and on using non-toxic biological materials that do not create pollution and facilitate disassembly (McKinsey & Company, 2012).

A practical example

Product design and business models determine to what extent a company’s operations and productions are contributing to a linear or circular economic model. A change in the design of products is needed in order to encourage more sustainable production, whilst a shift in business models will guide consumption towards more sustainable patterns.

Ricoh, a business to business provider of office equipment has a stated environmental policy with objectives to generate zero waste to landfill and engage in the recovery and recycling of its products (Ricoh, 2012). Applying a life cycle systems approach, Ricoh’s products are designed with end-of-life management and recovery in mind. Recycling is the final option, as maintenance, reuse of products and parts, and materials recovery are priority.


Richo’s operational model. Source: Towards a Circular Economy, The Ellen MacArthur Foundation (2012).

Products and components are easily disassembled for component recovery, are lighter and more suitable for recycling. At the end-of-life, Ricoh’s toner cartridges can be used in the production of road traffic bollards, crab pots and garden planters. Ricoh’s Green-line machines are remanufactured to be used for a second cycle and produce 40% less carbon emissions over their life cycle. The company has developed expertise in reverse logistics, operations and energy efficiency and provides clients consultancy advice, helping them save 30% in energy costs and reduce their CO2 emissions.

This idea at a wider scale contributes to the development of a Circular Economy. This concept isn’t new, but has recently been brought to the fore by the amazing campaign efforts by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

I’ll be writing more on the opportunity to advance sustainability through the Circular Economy, particularly for developing countries.


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