Lifting the Lid on sustainable product design

With a greater focus on sustainability throughout supply chains and increased consumer awareness of eco performance from brands, it is more important than ever to support sustainability through innovation. Sophie Weston, channel marketing manager at Geberit, explores the role of global sustainability goals in shaping product innovation and reducing environmental impact.

Green Leaves

Increased legislation and greater consumer awareness is changing the face of sustainability. What used to be a buzzword has now become a key pillar for businesses of all sizes; a way to stand out in competitive markets.

The drivers are clear. In August 2021, a report by Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said climate change is widespread, rapid, and intensifying, and some trends are now irreversible. The UN Secretary-General António Guterres said the Working Group's report was “a code red for humanity”.

There is already legislation in place to drive sustainability, of course. The Paris Agreement was the first-ever universal, legally binding global climate change agreement, adopted in 2015. It sets out a global framework to avoid dangerous climate change by limiting global warming to well below 2°C and pursuing efforts to limit it to 1.5°C.

Individual countries have subsequently set their own targets to support the Paris Agreement. The UK was the first major nation in the world to set a target to bring all greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050.

However, whilst regulatory change and corporate initiatives such as the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals have been in place for a number of years, the emphasis has shifted in recent times thanks to consumer pressure too.

Buoyed by major campaigns and television shows such as David Attenborough’s Blue Planet, consumer attitudes have intensified. People are more aware and more proactive in their actions towards global waste and climate change – and those of their chosen brands. IBM research shows nearly six in ten consumers are willing to change their shopping habits to reduce environmental impact and nearly eight in ten respondents said sustainability is important for them.

This increase in both regulatory pressure and consumer awareness is placing additional spotlight on businesses to take greater responsibility. And nowhere is it more important than in energy-intensive industries such as construction, manufacturing and industrial. In fact, manufacturing and industrial accounted for 16% of all energy consumption in the UK in 2019 – more than any other sector, according to Gazprom.

Sustainability in product design

At Geberit, we believe that sustainability starts with product design. By placing sustainability at the heart of design, factoring in everything from raw materials and production processes to packaging and recyclability, manufacturers can help to drive sustainable performance throughout the entire supply chain.

All of our products are developed in line with eco-design principles, ensuring that each product is better than its predecessor from an ecological perspective, without sacrificing on quality, functionality or durability. Eco-design covers all stages of the life cycle, thus contributing to the circular economy, taking into account the best raw materials, the right suppliers, local production and green logistics, in order to develop products that are made to last, repairable and recyclable.

In addition to selecting the most suitable materials and the continuous search for environmentally friendly alternatives and resource-saving design, we believe it is vital that products offer outstanding durability. Our solutions can be maintained, cleaned and repaired easily, but critically they are also backwards-compatible, which means older products can be enhanced with the addition of new components and functions.

These aspects play a decisive role in minimising the use of energy and resources, increasing the service life and useful life of the products, as well as closing material cycles. All key factors in driving more sustainable societies.

Sustainable development goals

In addition to regulatory drivers, there are a wide range of initiatives and objectives available to organisations to help them in achieving their sustainable goals.

The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), for example, are a collection of 17 interlinked global goals designed to be a “blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all“. The SDGs were set up in 2015 by the United Nations General Assembly and are intended to be achieved by the year 2030.

At Geberit, we have developed our own three dimensions of sustainability; People, Planet and Profit, which are based on the UN SDGs. By focusing on social conditions (people), natural resources and ecological responsibility (planet) and by operating in a long-term sustainable manner (profit) we can continue to support customers in a more responsible way. As a leading international company in the sanitary industry, our solutions make a significant contribution to the UN SDGs, in particular:

  • Goal 6: Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all
  • Goal 8: Promote sustainable economic growth, employment and decent work for all
  • Goal 9: Build resilient infrastructure, promote sustainable industrialisation and foster innovation
  • Goal 11: Make cities and communities safe, resilient and sustainable

How then, is this approach evident in product development? Let’s consider some working examples of Geberit innovations to support sustainable performance throughout supply chains and project lifecycles.

Sustainable sanitary solutions

Geberit AquaClean Mera
Geberit urinal system

Geberit has developed a comprehensive range of products that are regarded as sustainable sanitary solutions, and that contribute to increased quality of life with low energy and water consumption and with ecologically friendly materials. Sound insulation and simple product disposal are also part of responsible product design.

For example, the Geberit urinal system offers major water saving opportunities thanks to the different operation modes and the associated low operation and maintenance costs. An integrated urinal flush control can be operated using three power supply variants, whilst flushing out the urinal ceramic appliance with 0.5 litres per flush ensures compliance with EN 13407, the European standard for wall-hung urinals. Additional opportunities for saving water are made possible thanks to different operation modes, including dynamic flushing time adjustment (hybrid) and waterless operation.

Other solutions with Environmental Product Declarations in line with relevant European standards include the AquaClean Mera shower toilet, various washbasin taps as well as the Silent-PP and Silent-dB20 acoustic piping systems.

Revised flush technology

One innovation helping to drive the sustainability of toilet installations is new flush and fill valves for ceramic cisterns, made with more than 50% recycled material. Since insourcing the production of these valves, Geberit has revised part of the development process to reduce CO2 emissions and reduce their weight, thus cutting down on materials.

These new fill and flush valves are made from more than 50% recycled plastics, recovered from high-quality plastic waste from the electronics industry, with no impact on quality or functionality. Insourcing has also reduced transport distances by up to 50%. In total, around 1,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions are saved as a result of the changes.

Plastic regranulates

Production of cisterns
Geberit cisterns
Flush valve

The flush and fill valves are one example of using plastic regranulates to improve the sustainability of plastic-based products.

Not all plastic is the same. The quality of Geberit products is defined by their environmental friendliness, durability and conservation of resources. This principle also applies to the use of plastics and Geberit increasingly uses plastic regranulates, or recycled plastics.

At present, this is primarily ABS (acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene), which has been recovered from electronic scrap such as plastic cases from home appliances and computers. In 2020, Geberit processed 940 tonnes of this material worldwide.

Recycled ABS is made by first collecting the electronic scrap, disassembling it and then sorting the parts by plastic type. The ABS parts that are not treated with flame retardant are then shredded, washed, sorted, ground and regranulated. This requires 80% less energy to produce the material than compared with producing new plastic.

Geberit purchases the recycled material in the same way as new material and then shapes it into the desired form via injection moulding. Only the anthracite grey colour of the plastic reveals its origin, meaning it cannot be used on visible products. As a result, ABS is particularly suited to fill and flush valves or for the mounting frames on some actuator plates, for example.

By taking plastic and transforming it into high-quality products with a guaranteed long service life, we are making sure that the material is being used in the most targeted and economical way possible. Plastic offers many benefits from a sustainability perspective because it is light, robust and durable, among other aspects.

As a further demonstration of Geberit’s commitment to plastic regranulates, we have signed up to Operation Clean Sweep. This is an international initiative promoted by the plastics industry dedicated to preventing the loss of plastic granules, flakes and powder and ensuring that these materials do not pollute the environment. The goal here is to also uncover potential weaknesses in plastics processing and introduce the necessary improvements in future.

Long-term look

Good sustainable performance used to be a ‘nice to do’ but it is now a requirement of success, promoted by governments and demanded by consumers worldwide. Leading manufacturers should view product development process through the entire life-cycle – and we must all work in partnership to look beyond the obvious and consider the value of sustainable performance at every stage of the supply chain