Interview with Fabrizio Longoni, general director of Centro di Coordinamento RAEE.

After a lifetime spent at the service of your everyday sustenance, in the not-so-sad moment of its passing, we take a look a what happens to your fridge once its been taken away as scrap by the guys who just delivered your brand new Combi.

We asked Fabrizio Longoni, director general of CDC (Centro di Coordinamento RAEE, Italian clearinghouse organisation for the collection and disposal of electric and electronic waste), to help us assemble the disassembly case.

“While building a refrigerator is very easy, de-building it, on the contrary, is quite complicated.”

What’s the principal objective of the end-of-life processing of our appliances?

Let’s have a look at the lifecycle of our appliances: we’re talking about, in turn, the development of an original idea, the designing of the product, its manufacturing, transport, delivery, usage and subsequently, when the product becomes “waste”, its dismantling and disposal in what can be described as a second industrial phase, and one that is particularly complicated, too. This final stage in a product’s life has two principal objectives: avoiding the contamination of the environment in the first place, and recycling the materials it’s made of in the second place.

What’s so complicated about taking apart an old appliance?

While building a refrigerator is very easy, “de-building” it, on the contrary, is quite difficult. In the production phase, we are dealing with standardised raw materials for standardised processes, while the reverse process, or “de-production”, deals with a variety of models, production years and types of materials, with the objective to obtain usable raw-materials, the so-called secondary raw-materials. This is relatively easily done with metals - scrap yards have been around forever - but becomes a lot more complicated when it comes to all the other types of materials that are involved in the manufacturing of your fridge. After all, it was originally designed and built to preserve food in the best possible way, and less as a future provider of pure-grade secondary raw-materials.

What should the ideal, virtuous appliance look like?

Ideally, we would like an appliance to be 100% recyclable, and that the costs involved in recycling it in its entirety, both financially but also in terms of labour, be as sustainable as possible. It’s very simple, if the commercial value of these secondary raw-materials is less than what it costs us to extract them from a scrap refrigerator, we probably won’t bother doing it, unless someone makes us. Inversely, if the materials extracted are highly valuable and can be turned into cash quite rapidly, these scrap products will be snapped up in no time.

What recommendations would you make to designers and manufacturers?

If there’s one pledge to be made, it would have to be to make simple disassembly and easy recovery of raw-materials part of the design. Moreover, the costs associated to these operations should be taken into account, alongside traditional costs of production, when calculating the total cost of a product, and eventually reflect on its retail price.

“The financial and environmental opportunity cost of building a product that is not taking disassembly and recycling into account might turn out to be higher than the savings we can obtain from not investing in the engineering and design efforts to build a virtuous appliance.”

So, do designers talk to those in charge of dismantling their creations?

The difficulty is that people who today are working on disassembly and recycling, are dealing with the product of someone’s work from 15 or 20 years ago. There’s a delay in time, so dialogue is virtually impossible. The real question is “how good is today’s designer at foreseeing what will happen in 20 years time?”. The way we build appliances, the materials we employ, do evolve over time, often by small incremental steps, but at times through significant innovation. All this should be taken into account when designing new products.

Would using more metal and less plastics be helpful in some way?

Certainly. The types of plastic that we used some years ago cannot simply be employed today. Nowadays, we are able to better assess the environmental impact of these types of polymers. We wouldn’t be allowed to use them for the same purposes. While metals can be recycled more or less infinite times and used in exactly the same way, plastics are far more problematic and become obsolete quite rapidly.

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