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Regulating Product Sustainability

Products can be designed to maximise life cycle energy- and resource-efficiency, from raw material extraction to end-of-life treatment. This POSTnote outlines key aspects of, and consumer attitudes towards, sustainable products. It considers challenges associated with their design, production, regulation and supporting business models as part of a circular economy. ‘End-of-life’ treatment and value recovery, through reuse, recycling and other methods, are discussed.

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The product lifecycle covers energy and material inputs, production, distribution, use, disposal, and waste and emissions. Sustainable products should be designed to help save energy during operation and production, be free of toxic compounds, be made of recycled or reused materials, be durable and repairable, and minimise environmental impacts through their whole lifecycle. Sustainable products could support the UK in achieving environmental and climate goals, as related to waste reduction, increased resource-efficiency and net zero carbon emissions.

The UK adopted the EU’s 2015 Circular Economy Package and is committed to matching or exceeding the EU on ecodesign following Brexit. Ecodesign legislation already applies to the energy efficiency of a limited range of products, although regulations will expand to cover more product attributes, such as durability and material efficiency. Currently, average lifetimes of electrical goods are typically shorter than needed to offset the energy required for their production, but regulation can help to set minimum lifetimes for products. Limited ‘right to repair’ rules will be introduced in the UK from summer 2021, requiring producers to ensure that some durable goods can be repaired using widely available tools for up to 10 years, in addition to providing manuals. New, resource-efficient business models based on the design of more durable products, or product service systems based on access rather than ownership may provide economic benefits whilst reducing waste (as individual products can be used more).

In addition to promoting more efficient products, policy changes may be required to incentivise reuse and recycling in support of the circular economy. However, across all topics discussed, important challenges remain around data infrastructure and enforcement of regulations.

Key points

  • Energy- and resource-efficient products could support the UK’s waste reduction and net zero carbon goals, potentially saving 12 MtCO2e/year emissions by 2035.
  • Various measures are in place to promote product sustainability, and Ecodesign regulations are expanding to more product attributes beyond energy-efficiency to include durability, repairability, recyclability and material efficiency. Existing EU Ecodesign and Energy Labelling Regulations prevented 306 MtCO2e in 2020 (equivalent to the annual emissions of Spain).
  • Globally, waste is increasing, as is material consumption per person in the UK. New measures, such as better data collection, support for resource-efficient business models and improved enforcement may be important for addressing this.

Acknowledgements

POSTnotes are based on literature reviews and interviews with a range of stakeholders and are externally peer reviewed. POST would like to thank interviewees and peer reviewers for kindly giving up their time during the preparation of this briefing, including:

  • Andrew Bax, National Audit Office
  • Dr Jasmine Latham, Office for National Statistics (ONS)
  • Dr Colin Church, Circular Economy Task Force (Green Alliance) and the Institute for Materials, Minerals and Mining (IOM3)*
  • Cris Stephenson, Environcom
  • Sophie Walker, Dsposal
  • Louisa Goodfellow, Ecosurety
  • Robbie Staniforth, Ecosurety
  • Jacob Hayler, Environmental Services Association (ESA)
  • David Quillin, Kingfisher Plc
  • Susanne Baker, TechUK
  • Dr Frank O’Connor, Anois*
  • Dr Umaima Haider, University of East London*
  • Professor Tim Cooper, Nottingham Trent University*
  • Dr Karen Stroobants, Royals Society of Chemistry (RSC)
  • Kathy Page, Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC)
  • Dr Catherine Cherry, University of Cardiff
  • Raj Takhar, University of Derby
  • Dr Anne Velenturf, University of Leeds*
  • Professor Michael Shaver, University of Manchester and the Sustainable Materials Innovation Hub
  • Dr Haithan Askar, University of Northampton*
  • Professor Margaret Bates, On-Pack Recycling Label (OPRL)
  • Miranda Schnitger, Ellen MacArthur Foundation
  • Libby Peake, Green Alliance
  • Patrick Mahon, Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP)*
  • Dr Tom Murray, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra)*

* denotes people and organisations who acted as external reviewers of the briefing

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Channel website: https://www.parliament.uk/post

Original article link: https://post.parliament.uk/research-briefings/post-pn-0646/

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