This time last year, water in the canals in Venice, Italy, was clearing up. The significant reduction in boat traffic had finally given the sediment a moment to settle. Overgrown lawns became more biodiverse, allowing for native species to thrive. And on the largest scale, air and water quality improved around the world due to steep drops in fossil fuel consumption and the subsequent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.
These stories prove we can make meaningful changes to preserve the beauty and vitality of our planet. They inspire hope, which is so critical to motivating ourselves to make better choices and strive for better outcomes than are predicted today. But, while nature is powerful, there is a point of no return. We must not rest on our laurels. Instead, we must channel this positivity into greater action.
The theme of Earth Day 2021 is “Restore Our Earth,” which examines natural processes, emerging green technologies, and innovative thinking that can restore the world’s ecosystems. It invites us to think about circular economy initiatives and utilize faster-regenerating alternative materials and energy sources while embracing bold ideas that can help us think and act more sustainably.
Embedding sustainable practices into Zebra’s product and solution life cycles is key to our Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) commitment. On our continuous learning journey, we’ve found that taking a holistic approach to life cycle management of our offerings will help ensure both present and future generations can flourish.
What is a Holistic Approach?
In engineering, a holistic approach is one that combines varying practices and skills to complete or achieve a specified project or goal, respectively. Each workflow has its own tactics, decisions, and roadblocks but all converge at the same end. This approach allows us to look at individual challenges associated with each of our product life cycles collectively, which maximizes our ability to solve them.
A life cycle assessment (LCA) is a methodology for analyzing the potential environmental impacts of products from materials sourcing to disposal. By taking a deeper look at the ecological footprint of technology, specifically hardware, we realize the challenges of declining resources and energy usage and also the importance of materials management. To address these challenges, we are embedding sustainability in every aspect of our product life cycle in a holistic manner.
What Businesses Can Learn from LCAs
Figuring out which stages of a product’s life cycle have the biggest ecological footprint enables businesses to make informed decisions. For example, through our own LCAs of some of Zebra products, we’ve discovered that the manufacturing and use phases of our product life cycles have a greater impact on carbon emissions – more so than other phases like prototyping or distribution. This information is useful in determining where to allocate research and development (R&D) resources to learn where we can make the greatest strides in sustainability while maintaining cost efficiency.
You may have heard of value engineering, or the approach to achieving a necessary function of a product or solution at the lowest possible cost. But have you heard of reuse engineering, or using and reconfiguring existing assets to become functional for a specified purpose? Both value and reuse engineering can drive efficiencies and cost reduction, all while maintaining the same exceptional quality on which we pride ourselves.
Reuse engineering is common with Scaled Agile Framework® (SAFe) practitioners, especially software developers who look for opportunities to reuse a code instead of starting from scratch. This type of engineering is also important for hardware, as designing products from recycled materials or products that can be recycled helps reduce material waste and maximize product sustainability.
Eventually, every product will reach its end of life. How the product is used and eventually disposed of is greatly dependent on how it is designed. LCAs allow businesses to be more focused on integrating sustainability into early stages of product design so that end of life doesn’t require a landfill or incineration.
For example, many of Zebra’s enterprise-grade mobile computing, printing and scanning devices have a minimum operational lifespan of five to 10 years (compared to the much shorter one-to-two-year lifespan of consumer-grade devices). By making products that are reliable, serviceable, repairable, and that can undergo software updates, manufacturers such as Zebra can extend the life of products and prevent the need for recycling and/or disposal into landfills. Additionally, designing products to meet current and future regulations adds value for customers today, tomorrow, and much further down the line.
How Zebra’s LCAs are Driving Action That Benefits Customers, Partners and the Planet
Zebra is taking many different steps to reduce the environmental impact of our solutions and overall operations. For example:
- We have implemented a circular economy model which breathes new life into older devices with our Zebra Certified Refurbished Device Program – whether purchased or rented – and have targets to increase additional device availability within the circular economy portfolio. Similarly, we offer a device buy-back program and a recycling program to ensure we help customers retire devices through our environmentally safe Recycling Program.
- Our packaging engineers are working to reduce the amount of packaging and are continuously increasing use of biodegradable and recycled materials. We are also committed to eliminating packaging waste. To accomplish this, Zebra is reducing use of single-use plastics and disposable plastics in our packaging and currently evaluating other changes that can be made.
- We are proactively looking to design products which meet higher standards for sustainability. To date, several of our rugged tablets have gained EPEAT certification, including the popular L10 and ET51/56 portfolios. EPEAT is a third-party independent standard which assesses products under specific categories and rates them based on multiple criteria of sustainability to provide a bronze, silver or gold rating.
- To help recyclers safely dismantle and recycle different materials used in Zebra hardware components, we publish Product Recycling Information for all our products. Our modular design approach enhances recycling, and plastics parts weighing more than 25 grams are marked accordingly per ISO 11469 requirements.
- Restricting and controlling hazardous substances has become a core tenant of Zebra’s product compliance strategy. We are further reducing our environmental impact by voluntarily removing flexible PVC from external cable jackets as it creates recycling and end-of-life management challenges. Zebra’s global compliance specification outlines lists of controlled and restricted substances at a parts per million (ppm) level. No material management strategy is complete without compiling a full list of substances that make up the product and making publicly accessible. Zebra requires its suppliers to provide full material disclosures, thus giving full transparency into the materials used in the manufacturing of our products.
- Zebra is committed to meeting required energy efficiency standards in applicable product categories and are designing newer models to be more energy efficient. In applicable product categories (i.e., tablets and printers), our products are Energy Star-rated and our external power supplies are compliant with the more rigid Level VI energy efficiency standards. The batteries used in Zebra products are designed to hold enough charge to last an entire shift without recharging. We also offer a Power Precision tool to provide customers, their IT teams and end users visibility into battery usage and the number of charge cycles completed. This helps device managers to better predict the lifespan of each battery in its fleet and identify when it will need to be replaced.
A pessimist sees a glass as half empty, an optimist sees it as half full. An opportunist sees it completely full – half with water and half with air. At Zebra, we see every challenge as an opportunity. By taking a holistic approach to engineering and prioritizing sustainability in every decision we make about our product and solution designs, we are fulfilling our commitment to solving problems for our people, partners, customers and planet.
Thank you to my colleagues Nick Clemente and Michelle Grodzki for collaborating with me on this blog post and helping drive product sustainability as co-leads of the Zebra Green Product Council (GPC). Also, thanks to Mani Balakrishnan (Director, Sustainability) for driving bold commitments and tangible results for Environmental, Social, Governance (ESG). I also want to extend a special thanks to Joseph McFadden (Senior Manager, Engineering) for educating me on the concept of holistic approach.
You can learn more about Zebra’s commitment to supporting the protection of the environment and all our environmental initiatives here.