The Natural Edge Project The Natural Advantage of Nations Whole System Design Factor 5 Cents and Sustainability Higher Education and Sustainable Development

"The mindless burning of fossil fuels, which I call "burning diamonds", is having a disastrous effect on the planet's natural, social and economical environment. We should instead be using the vast resource of fossil remains for higher-state energy transfer processes to produce hydrocarbon materials... while at the same time moving towards using the renewable energy which will give rise to a new solar age."
Mick Pearce, architect

E-Waste Education Course One

Highschool Level

Lecture 3: E-Product Jujitsu - Shifting Design Methodologies


Educational Aim

Unit 3 discusses the opportunities for shifting the e-products design paradigm for product take-back and remanufacture. To manufacture a single computer requires about the same amount of fossil fuel, water and chemicals as the production of a large car - making a 2 gram memory chip requires 1.3kg of fossil fuel and materials. Not to mention the hours of labour and associated costs with labour, and add to this the future costs enforced by forthcoming regulations of tariffing waste to landfill. When so much money, effort, materials and time is invested to create one-time products that end up at the bottom of a rubbish dump, it's clear to see that this form of environmental waste is also an economic one


Learning Points

* 1. Design for Environment (DfE) and Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) are two concepts that support low materials intensity, low toxicity and high recyclability. The use of these concepts in the e-product manufacturing, information technology and communications industries continues to grow significantly,[1] which leads to the development of easily recyclable e-products.

* 2. Effective recycling and collection initiatives can increase the life of raw materials and prevent the release of toxic substances to the environment. Recycling is labour intensive and relatively costly because the currently obsolete e-product was not designed with disassembly in mind. A 1997 report estimates that the processing of 1000 tons of computers can create an average of 30 jobs.[2]

* 3. 'If manufacturers were to design computers, cell phones, etc. for easy disassembly and recycling, it would make the task easier wherever it takes place'.[3]

* 4. 'According to reprocessors, recycling of older computers, burnt out CRTs, printers and photocopiers needs to be subsidised, as the value of the recovered materials is less than total costs of recovering them. Other computer products pay for themselves through resale of systems, components or materials. A monitor is estimated to have a value of around $40-$60/unit if it is not burnt or broken. Otherwise they have a negative value of around $12-$25/unit excluding collection. Newer CPUs have a value of around $500/tonne. Printers and scanners have almost no value because they do not contain a large volume of metals or components'.[4]

* 5. Examples of ways to improve the environmental performance of e-products and the industry itself are:[5]

-  Reducing the overall number of parts and materials used.

-  Labelling materials, or coding them using electronic tags, to facilitate recycling and provide information on toxicity.

-  Use of metals in preference to plastics, as they are easier to recycle.

-  Standardisation of components to make disassembly easier.

-  Avoiding glues that contaminate the recycled materials, making sorting difficult.

-  Reducing the number of screws and using parts that snap together (and if screws are used, using the same type of screws, all oriented in the same direction, so they can be removed in rapid succession, using one tool).

-  Eliminating paint and dyes that contaminate and weaken plastics when recycled.

-  Switching to water-based paints which can be easily dissolved.

-  Creating computer components and peripherals of biodegradable materials.

-  Re-evaluate use of 'cheap' products which downgrade the product cycle and reduce the viability of disassembly and recycling.

-  Technology and knowledge sharing between manufacturers and de-manufacturers.

-  Encouragement and promotion of green procurement for corporate buyers.

-  Transform current sales model of providing 'products' to one of providing 'services'.


Brief Background Information


Design for Environment

As Hawken et al[6] wrote in Natural Capitalism , ' By the time the design for most uman artefacts is completed but before they have actually been built, about 80-90 percent of their life-cycle economic and ecological costs have already been made inevitable. ' The manufacture of a desktop computer and monitor requires fossil fuels of mass 11 fold greater than the products themselves.[7] By comparison, the manufacture of many other goods require 1-2 fold their mass in fossil fuel in order to make them.[8] 'In contrast with many home appliances, life cycle energy use of a computer is dominated by production (81%) as opposed to operation (19%)'.[9]

EEE also introduces pollution indirectly, particularly as greenhouse gas emissions. The Department of Environment and Heritage[10] estimates that over 42 million tons of greenhouse gases result each year from the manufacture, use and disposal of electrical and electronic equipment purchased by Australians. The research we reviewed also suggests that the energy saved by recycling and reusing used electronics is significant. 'The author of one report by the United Nations University states that perhaps as much as 80 percent of the energy used in the life cycle of a computer, which includes manufacturing, can be saved through refurbishment and reuse instead of producing a new unit from raw materials'.[11]

Designs for infrastructure, buildings, cars and appliances now have long design lives. The size and duration of infrastructure and building developments, for instance, demand that they should now be far more critically evaluated for efficiency and function than ever before.

Currently considerable opportunities are being missed at the design phase of projects to significantly reduce negative environmental impacts. There are a great deal of opportunities here for business and government to reduce process costs, and achieve greater competitive advantage through greener product design. As Australian Senator Robert Hill has previously stated,

Building construction and motor vehicles are two high profile industry sectors where producers are utilising (DfE) principles in their product development processes, thereby strategically reducing the environmental impact of a product or service over its entire life cycle, from manufacture to disposal. Companies that are incorporating DfE are at the forefront of innovative business management in Australia . As the link between business success and environmental protection becomes clearer, visionary companies have the opportunity to improve business practices, to be more competitive in a global economy, and increase their longevity.

The Department of Environment and Heritage has published Product Innovation: The Green Advantage: An Introduction to Design For Environment for Australian Businesses[12] which highlights the benefits of pursuing a 'Design for Environment' approach. This is backed up by numerous studies. 'Design for Environment' provides a new way for business to cost effectively achieve greater efficiencies and competitiveness from product re-design. Harvard business school Professor Michael Porter et al,[13] highlights the ways that 'Design for Environment' at the early stages of development of a project can both reduce costs, create product differentiation and help the environment, through:

Lower product costs (e.g. from material substitution, new improved plant efficiencies etc.).


Safer products.


Lower net costs to customers of product disposal.


Higher product resale and scrap value.


Products that meet new consumer demands for environmental benefits.

Manufacturers are placing greater emphasis on the recyclability of materials used in PCs and the impact the physical design has on the recyclability of products. Manufacturers are now reducing the amount of different plastics in their units making it easier to sort for recycling. They are increasingly looking at the type of plastic used to ensure that there is a market for the recycled resin. Plastic components over a certain size are being labelled to aid the recovery of the plastic. Manufacturers are ensuring that their units are easier to dismantle, thereby aiding the recycling process. There is a reduction in the number of screws used and preferences now made towards parts that clip together.[14]

Limited legislation in most countries means that local governments pay for e-product recycling and collection. However, governments, especially local governments, cannot afford to run these initiatives alone. There is still debate as to who should take financial responsibility for recycling and collection; a survey of US local governments by the Santa Clara County Department of Environment Health[15] showed that the popular suggestion is for manufacturers, distributors and retailers to carry most of the costs.

Life Cycle Assessment

Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is a methodology to assess the environmental impacts of a product, process or service. The International Organisation for Standardisation's (ISO) defines Life Cycle Assessment as: 'A systematic set of procedures for compiling and examining the inputs and outputs of materials and energy and the associated environmental impacts directly attributable to the functioning of a product or service throughout its life cycle'.

According to the ISO 14040 series, LCA is conducted by 1) developing an inventory of all inputs (materials, energy) and outputs (waste, emissions, other environmental impacts); 2) evaluating potential impacts based on inputs and outputs compiled in inventory; and 3) interpreting results.

Businesses manufacture products, or provide services, by taking a life cycle approach to their daily activities. They take into consideration not only the finished product or service (looking at inputs and outputs at each state of the process, production or service delivery), but also how it will impact the environment and community.

The life cycle of making a t-shirt:[16]

a) Raw Materials - fertiliser, energy, water

b) Processing - energy, cleaners, dyes

c) Manufacturing - energy, waste

d) Packaging - paper, plastics, waste

e) Transport - energy

f) Use - bleach, detergents, water, energy

g) Either one of 1) Disposal, 2) Reuse (go back to f.), or 3) recycle (go back to a.)


A lifecycle approach helps us to engage in whole systems thinking - both understanding the complex interactions between energy and material throughout the life of a product, and thinking in the long term about the impacts these interactions will have on the environment and society. LCA ultimately helps industry, government and the consumer make informed decisions about product purchasing.

LCA example - avoid shifting problems from one part of the environment to the other: Methyl Tertiary Butyl Ether (MTBE) is added to gasoline to increase combustion levels, reducing emissions. MTBE may be toxic if it is not combusted fully, and is now present in our major waterways and in the atmosphere. LCA lesson - focusing on one part of the emissions cycle (i.e. reducing pollution from automobile combustion) has created problems in other parts of the cycle ie. MTBE exceeding allowable levels in major water sources.


Break Out Exercise: Design for Environment

Discussion Case Study: RLX computer server

The evolving economy of the world is highly dependent on fast, reliable computers. Server appliances for internet hosting provide the computing power for companies to have a large 'ecological footprint' on-line. Server appliances are large groups of computers (servers), typically mounted together in racks. Often large numbers of these racks are used to meet required hosting needs.

Computing power is the design focus, with other issues (i.e., ease of use, affordability, efficiency, size, etc.) considered to be secondary, if addressed at all. The specifications for conventional server racks depend on the manufacturer, but the leading brand incorporates 42 servers into a rack, with two processors per server. The processors used are similar to those for home computers, requiring dedicated fans to blow over large heat sinks. Electrical connections within a single server are accomplished with wiring, which is a source of failure. The large number of Ethernet cables required by such a rack is difficult to manage. A company requiring 336 servers to meet their hosting needs will need 8 server racks, each containing 42 servers. Each server costs roughly $4000 and weighs 29 lbs, so the complete system will cost $1,350,000 and weigh nearly 10,000 lbs. This setup will require 264 amps to function.

RLX, a relative newcomer to server development, decided to take a new approach to server design. Through market research, they recognised the importance of both compact design and energy efficiency to server customers, in addition to computing speed. RLX used whole systems analysis to determine how best to meet these new design parameters. Analysis was performed at the processor level, the server level, the rack level, and the system level, resulting in a product which better meets customer needs.

The RLX blade server is centred about an efficient processor built by Transmeta. This processor requires 20 percent of the electrical power of an equivalent Pentium III processor. As a result, no heat sinks or dedicated fans are required for cooling, reducing the size of each server. RLX servers require 1/8 as much space as traditional designs, so 336 servers fit in a single rack, versus 8 racks of competitors. Each server costs $1500 and weights 3 lbs. The initial cost of a 336 server system ($504,000) is 63 percent less and weighs 80 percent less than the leading competitor's equivalent system. Due to a smaller footprint and reduced electricity consumption (43 amps), the operating costs are less too, saving an additional $133,000/y. To further improve on the competition, RLX made the overall system more reliable with solid-state electrical connections and redundant power supplies. No tools are required to install additional servers, so expansion of computing abilities is straightforward. In addition, 1/12 as many Ethernet cables are required per rack, making their management significantly easier.


Break Out Discussion: Life Cycle Assessment

Discussion Case Study: LCA of Washing Machines

The washing machines comprise the following life cycle stages:


  extraction of raw materials


  transport of raw materials for initial processing


  packaging, transport of materials and components to washing machine manufacturer

  manufacture of washing machine

  packaging, transport and distribution of washing machine

  operation of washing machine - including detergent and itspackaging, water and wastewater treatment

  transport and disposal of washing machine.

In an LCA the potential and likely environmental impacts of each stage noted above must be considered. For example during the operation and disposal of the washer, impacts such as air pollutants, water pollutants and consumption, greenhouse emissions and solid waste, and the use and production of toxic/hazardous substances can be clearly identified:

Washing machine operation - waterborne emissions, wastewater treatment and manufacture of treatment chemicals; energy used for water heating, motor functioning, water pumping.

Detergent and its packaging - detergent manufacture i.e. energy, chemicals, box and carton materials, waste.

Washing machine disposal - transport to disposal, energy used in shredding and compacting, materials recycling, solid waste produced.





1. RMIT & Product Ecology (2004) Electrical and electronic products infrastructure facilitation, RMIT & Product Ecology, p. 34. (viewed 9 May 2006) (Back)

2. Platt & Hyde (1997) cited in Biddle (2000) End of Life Computer & Electronics Recovery: Policy Options for the Mid-Atlantic States , 2 nd edn, MACREDO, p. 30 (viewed 19 May 2006) (Back)

3. O'Meara Sheehan, M. (2003) The hidden costs of the e-economy , Worldwatch Institute. (viewed 15 May 2006) (Back)

4. RMIT & Product Ecology (2004) Electrical and electronic products infrastructure facilitation, RMIT & Product Ecology, p. 54. (viewed 9 May 2006) (Back)

5. Environment Victoria (2005)
Environmental report card on computers 2005: computer waste in Australia and the case for producer responsibility, Environment Victoria, pp. 34-35. (viewed 9 July 2006) (Back)

6. Hawken, P., Lovins, A and Lovins, L.H. (1999) Natural Capitalism: creating the next industrial revolution, Earthscan, London. (Back)

7. Williams, E. (2004) 'Energy intensity of computer manufacturing: hybrid analysis combining process and economic input-output methods', Environmental Science and Technology, vol. 38, no. 22, pp. 6166-6174. (viewed 25 July 2005) (Back)

8. Ibid. (Back)

9. Ibid. (Back)

10. Department of Environment and Heritage (2005) Electrical and electronic product stewardship strategy, DEH. (viewed 12 May 2006) (Back)

11. Government Accountability Office (2005)
Electronic waste: strengthening the role of the Federal Government in encouraging recycling and reuse , United States Government, p. 9 (viewed July 9 2006) (Back)

12. Department of Environment and Heritage (2001) Product Innovation: The Green Advantage: An Introduction to Design For Environment for Australian Businesses, DEH.

publications/producer.html (viewed 29 October 2006) (Back)

13. Porter, M. and van der Linde, C. (1995)
Green and Competitive: Ending the Stalemate', Harvard Business Review , Sept-Oct, pp 121-134. (Back)

14. RMIT & Product Ecology (2004) Electrical and electronic products infrastructure facilitation, RMIT & Product Ecology, p. 19. (viewed 9 May 2006) (Back)

15. Santa Clara County Department of Environment Health (2004) Best Management Practices for Electronic Waste, California Integrated Waste Management Board, p. 17. (viewed 9 July 2006) (Back)

16. Worldwatch Institute (2003) Worldwatch Paper 166: Purchasing Power: Harnessing Institutional Procurement for People and the Planet, Worldwatch Insititute. Available at (viewed 15 October 2006) (Back)