New analysis of refuse left outside the city walls of Pompeii suggests that the ancient Romans may have invented recycling. Archaeologists believe that the Romans regularly sorted and reused materials such as broken tiles, amphorae and lumps of mortar and plaster.
Two thousand years later, the modern world produces over two billion tonnes of municipal solid waste every year. According to a report by Verisk Maplecroft, that is enough to fill over 800,000 Olympic sized swimming pools.
The report says that only 16% (323 million tonnes) of this is recycled each year. A staggering 46% (950 million tonnes) is disposed of unsustainably.
Experts blame this phenomenon on our linear economic model, where products are made, used and discarded. When electrical items break down, for instance, consumers buy replacements, all too often because the devices are impossible or too costly to repair.
Fortunately, a new economic model re-evaluates our current approach to production and consumption. It calls for a paradigm shift across society in which products, components and materials are viewed as regenerative and restorative.
The notion of a circular economy is gaining traction not only among environmentalists and academics but also within governmental and business sectors.
To make products that last longer, standards are needed to ensure that product safety, performance and reliability are sufficiently taken into account. Issues such as data removal and security must also be considered as products are reused and change ownership.
Moreover, a holistic approach is needed to ensure that the protection of the environment is not detrimental to areas such as product safety, electromagnetic compatibility (EMC) and performance.
Legislation is expected to require the increased use of used parts as well as products that can more easily be repaired or remanufactured. Standardized methods and tools will be needed to assess aspects such as the proportion of reused components or recycled content in a product, and how to assess the ease (or difficulty) with which a product can be repaired or remanufactured.
Standards are needed to guarantee the properties of the used material, as well as to define the requirements for parts reliability. Within the IEC, several committees have developed standards that support material efficiency for electrical and electronic products.
Some examples include:
- IEC TR 62635 with information on product end of life, including the recyclability rate calculation.
- IEC TR 62824 with guidance about material efficiency considerations in the eco-design of products.
- IEC 62309 which examines the dependability of products containing used parts.
- IEC 63077 which specifies the process for ensuring the performance and safety of refurbished medical imaging equipment.
New standards covering requirements for material efficiency in the design of products, such as circular ready design, are needed and plans are underway to start such standardization work in the IEC.
The circular economy is more advanced than recycling. It calls for a reconsideration of how resources are managed and how waste is perceived.
The circular economy affects the entire lifecycle of a product, from initial design and the materials employed to the use of the product, its repair, reuse and the transformation of its parts into a new product. For the time being, though, it seems there is still a lot we can learn about sustainability from the ancient Romans.
In-depth: read more about the circular economy in e-tech