Title: Guidance for the Assessment of Material Efficiency: Application to Smartphones
Publisher: Publications Office of the European Union
Publication Year: 2020
JRC N°: JRC116106
ISBN: 978-92-76-15411-2 (online)
ISSN: 1831-9424 (online)
Other Identifiers: EUR 30068 EN
OP KJ-NA-30068-EN-N (online)
URI: https://publications.jrc.ec.europa.eu/repository/handle/JRC116106
DOI: 10.2760/037522
Type: EUR - Scientific and Technical Research Reports
Abstract: Improving the material efficiency of products has the potential of bringing benefits to the environment and to the economy, by saving resources and avoiding production of waste. However, improved design of products needs to be assisted by appropriate assessment methods. In this context, the Joint Research Centre Directorate B, Circular Economy & Industrial Leadership unit (JRC B.5), prepared a guidance for the assessment of material efficiency of products (GAME) addressing two practical targets: - The identification of key material efficiency aspects of products; - The definition of tangible improvement measures. The guidance, which is described in this report in parallel to its application to smartphones, is based on the analysis of technical and functional aspects of products, as well as on the definition of life cycle assessment scenarios targeting environmental and economic impacts. The product group “smartphones” is used as an illustrative case study to show how to implement this guidance for the analysis. Possible actions for improving the performance of smartphones with respect to material efficiency are investigated. Aspects like durability, reparability, upgradability, recyclability and use of materials are analysed. Resembling the methodology for the ecodesign of energy-related product (MEErP), the analysis was carried out in the following steps: 1. Product group definition - The scope of the analysis is defined, legislative references identified as well as relevant testing methods; 2. Market - The market of the product is characterised, particularly in relation with practices promoting a more circular economy; 3. User behaviour - How consumers use and interact with the product is analysed; 4. Technical aspects - Technical elements for the analysis of material efficiency and system aspects are provided; 5. Material efficiency hotspots - Life Cycle Assessment and Life Cycle Cost impacts are quantified for alternative scenarios based on the information gathered; 6. Definition of possible design measures for improving material efficiency - Possible measures that could improve the material efficiency of the analysed product are defined. Main findings related to the application of the guidance to smartphones are provided below. - Different organisations have been working worldwide for the development of standards and labels on smartphones (Section 1) which can be used as a starting point for improving the material efficiency and the sustainability of the product. - The market sales of new smartphones globally appear to have slowed down in recent years, while the 2nd-hand market has slightly increased in size (Section 2). Two main business strategies of manufacturers and service providers can be outlined: i) focusing on the upgrade of models and the integration of new technological features; and ii) contributing to the development of circular business models that can allow retaining the product's value (e.g. via more durable/reparable designs). - Smartphones are on average replaced by users every two years (Section 3). In more than half of the cases, the replacement was found to be due to the user wanting a new model/software (in absence of failures). Results may differ from one country to another. The technical lifetime of smartphones could be extended to 4.5 years. - From a technological point of view, functionality of smartphones has been increasing over time, with consequent increase of power demand, storage capacity and materials needed (Sections 4.1 and 2). - Smartphones are made of a variety of materials, some of them used in very small quantities but of global concern because of their social, economic and geopolitical impacts (CRM and minerals from conflict-affected and high-risk areas). At the end of life, smartphones are typically left unused at home (one out of two). This diverts resources from processes aimed at the reuse, recycling and recovery of materials (Sections 4.2 and 4.4.). - Limiting states of smartphones are often associated to a failure of screens and batteries. The upgradability of Operating System, firmware and software (i.e. security updates/patches) are also important aspects to ensure the longevity of smartphones (Section 4.3). Design strategies followed by manufacturers to extend the lifetime of smartphones focus on reliability and resistance of the device and/or on their reparability/upgradability. - A broad variety of products is available on the market that presents different functionalities, characteristics and impacts. Life Cycle Thinking can be used to better understand trade-offs and investigate if any material efficiency strategy can be prioritised over the others (Section 5). In the case of smartphones, it was found that remanufacturing and reuse should come first, followed by extending the years of use of the device, especially in absence of repair interventions. The impact of replacing a battery appears in particular low if compared to the benefits achievable with an extension of the product lifetime. It should also be observed that benefits from the use of second-hand devices could be partially offset by an increase of the global purchase of smartphones. Recycling can be then considered as a complementary strategy to recover precious metals and critical materials. - Significant impacts from the life cycle of smartphones are associated to data consumption and the related networks, which constitute an "invisible" source of impact of which to make consumers more aware, operators and policy makers. On the other hand, energy consumption due to the recharge of the battery seems to play only a secondary role. Moreover, service contracts appear the most important cost for consumers along the life cycle of the product (Section 5). - A series of possible measures to improve the material efficiency of smartphones has been presented based on the information gathered (Section 6). These cover both technical and behavioural aspects of smartphones since also consumers can play a dramatic role in determining the life cycle impact of their devices. Results of the study could be used for the integration of material efficiency aspects in decision-making processes targeting the design, manufacture and purchase of smartphones. It should be remarked that results are general in nature, so that do not take into account the characteristics of specific models on the market, and should not be extended to other product categories. However, these can serve as an information basis for broader discussion about the possible regulation and standardisation of ICT products. The guidance could be moreover adapted to the specificities of any product on the market, and integrated in ecodesign, energy labelling and eco-labelling studies aimed at identifying measures to improve the sustainability of product groups. In this respect, the guidance is considered compatible with the MEErP. The integration in MEErP of the aspects described in this study is recommended to handle material efficiency aspects in Ecodesign. The study also highlights that the discussion on material efficiency is complex and can be limited by lack of quantitative information and data. As remedy to such limitation, the study was conducted through a structured consultation process involving stakeholders with different backgrounds and interests (e.g. representatives of manufacturers, repairers, recyclers, NGOs and testing organisations, Member States and scientific institutions). From the one hand, this has allowed access to best available information from alternative sources; from the other hand, this has allowed a quality check of the information reported. As a general rule it is thus remarked the importance of engaging with a comprehensive and heterogeneous pool of stakeholders, as well as to interpret, analyse critically and report transparently the information processed and any result proceeding from modelling activities.
JRC Directorate:Growth and Innovation

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