Survey results on the circular economy and material efficiency

An interview with Solange Blaszkowski, Chair of IEC ACEA

By Natalie Mouyal

As the topics of the circular economy (CE) and material efficiency (ME) receive greater importance around the world, the Advisory Committee on environmental aspects (ACEA) recently conducted a survey to identify how it could provide guidance to the IEC community on these topics.

Solange Blaszkowski Solange Blaszkowski, Chair of IEC ACEA

The survey consisted of 10 questions sent to technical committees (TCs), subcommittees (SCs) and systems committees (SyC) with a total of 63 responses received. e-tech spoke with Solange Blaszkowski, Chair of IEC ACEA for an overview of the survey and its results.

What was the purpose of the survey? 

The survey was issued to identify the level of understanding and relevance of the circular economy and material efficiency by TCs, SCs and SyCs. It was also intended to determine if the committees could distinguish between circular economy and material efficiency. Before explaining CE and ME aspects to the IEC community, we need to know if this is something that needs to be done or whether the committees already have a good understanding of these topics.

How familiar were the respondents with the terms circular economy and material efficiency? 

The survey demonstrated that the majority of respondents indicated that, yes, they are familiar with the circular economy. Nonetheless, 22% is quite a large number of respondents that are not familiar with it at all. Respondents are more familiar with material efficiency, with nearly 80% indicating an understanding of this term. 

Did the TCs/SCs/SyCs consider the circular economy and material efficiency to be relevant to their work? 

Although the numbers were mixed, many TCs/SCs/SyCs did not see that either the circular economy or material efficiency were relevant to them now or anticipate them becoming relevant in the future. Forty four percent of respondents think that the circular economy is not relevant for them and nearly 40% do not think that material efficiency is relevant to their work. 

What aspects of the circular economy and material efficiency do respondents think are most relevant to their work? 

In the survey, we listed different aspects of the circular economy and material efficiency to find out which ones were the most relevant to TCs/SCs/SyCs. Respondents selected (in order of importance): reduction in the use of material and product lifetime (both 61%), product design optimized for circularity (59%) and recyclability (57%). Other aspects considered important were use of recycled materials and product repairability.  

Respondents identify these topics as relevant to their work but don’t necessarily associate them with either the circular economy or material efficiency. Of the 19 TCs/SCs/SyCs that answered “no” to the relevance of CE or ME to their work, 10 could nonetheless identify aspects that were relevant to them. So this seems to be a contradiction. 

We also asked if any other topics not on this list should be included. We received some interesting input such as refurbishment, graphical symbols for product/service related to CE or ME, avionics equipment disposal and electroheating as a possible route for material recycling. This has given us answers in relation to recycling and material use. 

In the future, products will need to last much longer, will contain increased amounts of reused parts and will need to be repaired more often if we are to fulfil the objectives of the circular economy. As a result, safety and other aspects will need to be considered and developed. 

Do we know if aspects of the circular economy or material efficiency are already included in the development of standards? 

We asked whether CE or ME aspects are already in standards and we can observe that the majority (67%) say no and do not have plans to include them. But those that responded yes are including topics such as upgradeability, reuse, end-of-life management and repairability in their standards. 

What conclusions can you draw from the survey?

We learned a lot with the survey, more than we expected, and I think that the main conclusion is that there is still work to do within the ACEA.

In the final question of the survey, we asked respondents to provide any additional comments and we noticed that there is still some uncertainty regarding the terms circular economy and material efficiency. This is not helped by the fact that geographically, different terms mean the same thing or the same term means different things.

The survey shows that for many TCs/SCs/SyCs, the meaning of the terms CE and ME are not clear to them. For example, 35% of respondents did not find CE and ME to be relevant but half of them could identify relevant aspects from the list presented in the survey.

Because both CE and ME are not well defined, some committees are not considering aspects that might be relevant for their standards. For example, some might think that either CE or ME are only related to the environment, when actually they could have implications for their standards like safety and performance.

TCs/SCs/SyCs will need to consider issues such as how to balance safety requirements versus reuse/repair requirements. Also, CE and ME aspects can be in conflict with other requirements because making products last a long time could impede the take-up of products offering a lower energy consumption. ACEA stands ready to assist TCs/SCs/SyCs in these matters.

What are the next steps?

We will prepare guidance on the circular economy and material efficiency, most likely by revising Guide 109. CE and ME will be important topics to include in this guide. We will start looking into the revisions at our next meeting in Geneva in June and develop a timeline for updating the Guide. We expect the process to take approximately one year.

We are also planning to organize a workshop on CE and ME during the next IEC General Meeting in Shanghai and we have confirmed that we will have a webinar on CE and ME at the end of 2019 or early 2020.

We also will work closely with TC 111 which is now proposing to draft a new horizontal standard on material circulation in environmentally conscious design.

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Solange Blaszkowski, Chair of IEC ACEA Solange Blaszkowski, Chair of IEC ACEA