While the concept of a circular economy may be discussed in boardrooms across the United States, it remains largely a voluntary movement.
The European Union (EU), however, is introducing laws to create a circular economy.
For example, during the first week of June, the European Commission proposed legislation that would require smartphones sold in the EU, including Apple’s iPhone, to be equipped with the universal USB-C port for wired charging by autumn 2024. The rule also applies to other electronic devices including tablets, digital cameras, headphones, handheld video game consoles, and e-readers. Laptops are set to follow suit in 2026.
The legislation also includes provisions designed to address wireless chargers in the future, as well as harmonizing fast-charging standards.
Circular economy rules
In March, the Commission proposed new circular economy rules for everyday items. Smartphones, clothes, and furniture must meet new circularity requirements to gain access to the EU market. Specifically, this means that “new” products must be 1) durable; 2) reused, repaired or recycled; and 3) contain recycled materials.
These directives correspond directly with the Circular Economy Action Plan, adopted by the European Commission in 2020. This plan is one of the main building blocks of the European Green Deal which aims to make sustainable products the norm in the EU.
As part of the plan, single-use will be restricted, premature obsolescence tackled and the destruction of unsold durable goods banned.
Products would also be tagged with a “passport” or a grade of sorts so that consumers can make purchasing decisions based on a product’s sustainability.
Seven of the plan’s priority industries include: electronics and information technology, batteries and vehicles, packaging, plastics, textiles, construction and buildings, and food.
These changes are important for the environment, a company’s bottom line, and independence. The Commission says that the new sustainable products framework could lead to energy savings which correspond to around 150 billion cubic meters of natural gas, just under the amount the EU imports from Russia.
Innovative companies looking forward
Joel Makower, chair of GreenBiz, talked with several companies who are already working to navigate these new regulations.
Bang & Olufsen, a global leader in audio and visual consumer electronics, is using Europe’s Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute’s certification process as a roadmap.
Mads Kogsgaard Hansen, senior global product manager, product circularity at Bang & Olufsen, told Makower that there was no way his company could be perceived as being long-term sustainable. “We are using…a lot of materials and energy, and creating increasing amounts of waste, if we look at the industry in general.”
They began to look closer at their product system and broke it down into the 100 or so components that comprises one of their products. Although a bit overwhelming and extremely complex, Hansen says that they are using “…the Cradle to Cradle framework to get things into structure. It has been key for us to understand that the principles are based on science. It’s not dictating how to solve it. It’s setting direction that gives us a clear challenge to solve.”
Also, the company asked some hard questions. “If we want to create a wireless speaker that should be relevant for 10 years or more, where are the barriers?” Hansen said. “We did a lot of research to understand what makes people buy new stuff. And some of the things that come into play are very practical.”
So, the company asked itself, “How can we make something that is flexible? How can we make hardware components replaceable so that we can adapt to a future that we don’t know anything about yet?”
As a result, the company began building modularity into its designs.
Reckitt, the global consumer products company whose brands include Air Wick, Calgon, Clearasil, Durex, Lysol, and Woolite, is basing its future on the Chemical Strategy for Sustainability (CSS), adopted by the European Commission in 2020. Under the CSS, groups of chemicals that don’t meet its standards will be restricted. For example, the endocrine-disrupting, persistent and bioaccumulative substances will likely be phased out.
To build a global circular economy, companies are going to have to do more. Future products will require serious innovation and creative engineering if one wants to continue to sell on a global scale.
The EU regulations discussed above are not yet final. Because they focus on products that must withstand first, second, even third use recycling, it is likely that the Commission’s proposals will face lobbying from short-lifespan product industries, among other hurdles. But they are coming.
So why wait? Building circularity in product designs and formulations now prepares businesses for the time when governmental legislation (at least in Europe) will require it.