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Interview with Karsten Schischke, Group Manager Policy, Ecodesign, and Circular Materials

Karsten Schischke is the Group Manager Policy, Ecodesign, and Circular Materials at Fraunhofer IZM Berlin. We talked to him about his work, learnings, plans, goals, and what sustainability means to him personally.

“Many target a design for better disassembly, but in reality, something like “design for shreddability” is needed because this is how end-of-life for, e.g., electronics waste looks like: Shredding! […] It is extremely complex to understand all facets of technology, the environment, markets, and the user alike and to take these into account when designing a product. This is definitely a team sport.”

What are your initiatives to make design more sustainable?   

Karsten Schischke: Technological progress provides ample opportunities to develop more sustainable products – or the opposite: To come up with product ideas and concepts which do more harm to the environment. To judge the potential of technology regarding potential positive or negative effects is, in many cases, not a straightforward exercise. A thorough view of the whole product life cycle is needed, which typically involves quite some assumptions. This is, in particular, true for products and technologies in a development stage, where the later user perception and behavior are not yet known. We at the Fraunhofer Institute for Reliability and Microintegration do research in this instance on electronics products. An example is the modularity of mobile products. This is typically seen as a pre-condition for repairability and, thus, lifetime extension. So far, so good. Our research, however, has shown that more modularity initially also means more environmental impacts, as the components enabling modularity – connectors are the most obvious example – have to be produced with additional environmental impacts. If the user, later on, does not repair a defect despite the simplicity of the repair process, then this product is even worse than a conventional one. Similar trade-offs can relate to reliability and repairability or recyclability and robustness. Finding here the optimal engineering solutions is key. That’s why we are also undertaking a lot of research based on Life Cycle Assessments: Quantifying, e.g., the carbon footprint of a product, process, or supply chain is a great starting point to discuss targeted measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Currently, I’m coordinating one such project where we do pilots on greenhouse gas accounting in electronics enterprises to get the basic figures right to decide on a climate policy and targets next. Measures are then either design-related or further supply chain interaction or changing internal processes. Just to take an example, for an electronics manufacturing service, it is an eye-opener that the energy consumption of the in-house assembly and soldering processes is relevant but dwarfed by the upstream impacts of producing the printed circuit board and the electronic components. Without influencing the supply chain, such companies will hardly reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions related to their products significantly. 


What role do you think design plays in sustainability? 

KS: Design is crucial to reduce the environmental impacts across the product life cycle. Bad design choices can hardly be corrected later in the product life cycle. If the product is difficult to repair, this is a huge economic barrier for an extended lifetime once the device breaks. If I don’t know which parts are most likely to fail and my strategy for a repair-friendly design does not target the most critical components or just tries to maximize reparability, this will not be the optimal solution. Same for reliability: I need to know the weak spots in my design to reduce the likeliness of failures. 


What are the challenges you face when working on ecodesign? 

KS: Ecodesign has to be understood as a process, including trial and error: Improvements are made over time with repeated design iterations and process adaptations. To take an example, it is easy to talk about using more recycled plastics. Still, it is a complex undertaking to implement it: For high-tech products, frequently, there are no recyclates, which can be used as drop-in solutions where you just exchange virgin polymers with a recycled polymer. You need to test the variability of material characteristics, including the processability of the material. You might need to adapt product and tool design to allow for recycled plastics. You also should make sure you secure a sufficient supply of this material over time if you want to use it for consumer products in large amounts. The same is true for design for recyclability: You need to understand how a recycler works and if he really appreciates the nice little features you implement in your design, which you think will ease recycling. Many target a design for better disassembly, but in reality, something like “design for shreddability” is needed because this is how end-of-life for, e.g., electronics waste looks like: Shredding! These are only some of the examples you need to consider for ecodesign; it is extremely complex to understand all facets of technology, the environment, markets, and the user alike and to take these into account when designing a product. This is definitely a team sport. 


What would you rate as your most successful measure for more sustainability in the last years, and why? 

KS: Success comes in many flavors, so I will tell you about three very different measures: The lessons we learn from research projects directly feed into the process of assisting policymakers and stakeholders, in general, to put in place sound legislation to advance the sustainability of information and communication technology: Most recently we supported the European Commission to develop eco-design legislation and an Energy Label for mobile phones and tablets. It took almost three years to go through the analytical and political process, but now we are almost there. The legislation will be adopted in the next few weeks and will be a step forward in terms of reparability and reliability of, e.g., smartphones in the years to come. 

In general, we are working with many companies in the information and communication technology sector, from start-ups to large multinationals. They are all in the race toward climate neutrality currently. I don’t want to discuss here if “climate neutrality” is actually the right term and achievable at all. Still, the main point is that the companies have a more or less visionary goal and work honestly on achieving this goal. With our research and analytical insights, we are supporting these companies on their journey. This really changed a few years ago: The industry is now much more serious about environmental targets. And it is great that they are listening and eager to learn from us.  

Sometimes we accept the challenge of explaining our findings to laypersons: At the IFA in Berlin last year, we confronted kids with a backpack filled with the weight of carbon emissions of manufacturing a smartphone. A 150 or 200-g smartphone means 35 kg of released CO2 before you even switch on the device for the first time. Just to see how the kids tried to lift this 35 kg backpack – and most of them failed – was fun for us and an eye-opener for them about what they really carry around in their pockets. We are also going to Repair Cafés to provide extra motivation, explaining that repair is good for the climate if you keep this 35 kg backpack “alive” instead of upgrading to a new one, releasing 35 kg of carbon emissions again. This work “on the ground” might not be a huge lever, but it is important nevertheless. 


What do you think companies lack to become better at sustainability?  

KS: Sustainability is such a complex topic that it is difficult to identify a starting point and not to get lost in details, which do not matter much in the end. Getting started and setting at least some of the priorities right from the beginning is important. Success stories from thought leaders can help. In 2021, we organized a series of online seminars to let leading companies share their story on how they approach circular design with iNEMI, the International Electronics Manufacturing Initiative. The approaches and solutions were so manifold that this series of events really serves as a pool of ideas on how to go green. It was also evident that many of these companies went through some Life Cycle Assessments of their products to gather evidence for further action. Getting started with Life Cycle Assessments, however, first and foremost, involves a lot of data crunching, which can be time-consuming. But at the end of the day, it is a great tool to get the baseline right for action. 


What do you do to make your own life more sustainable? 

KS: In a large city like Berlin, where I live, you can easily rely on public transportation and the bike, so I don’t have a car. During the pandemic, people flew much less, so the question is whether flying less frequently is feasible now. It is. Despite being involved in quite a bit of international projects, my last flight so far was on November 13, 2019. Since then, I have relied on ground transportation and online conferences. It works, and research is at least as efficient as before! Guess I need to take off again one day, but I see it as my private challenge to push this day as far as possible. Eating delicious vegetarian food, streaming on handheld devices instead of switching on the TV set, and turning down the heating until the lower limit of my thermal comfort zone is reached, which is surprisingly low. Laziness to transfer all my data and settings from an old device to a new one and consequently being more tolerant with the glitches of my five years old smartphone. Buying regional beer, having in mind the large number of beer trucks just bringing each and every sort of beer from numerous breweries into each and every other village in Germany. Drink locally. Going more frequently to restaurants, because I’m sure this is more energy efficient, than everybody cooking on his own at home. Many things can be done, and surprisingly once habits are changed, it doesn’t feel like a loss of comfort. And still, I went skiing recently, so there are definitely some aspects where I can still reduce my environmental footprint further. 


What do you think the world needs most to fight global warming and pollution?  

KS: We have talked about designing better products, but actually, what is needed is designing fewer products. Technology solutions are important, but without de-growth, this will not work out. Our lifestyle is just too energy and resource intensive. There is still a lot of growth potential in the repair, reuse, and refurbishment sector, this is sustainable growth with little energy input required, but the production of new products needs to go down significantly as long as the world is not running fully on renewables.  

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