Digital Product Passports: how information can power the circular economy

This blog looks at Digital Product Passports and their potential for helping circular product systems function. You can rewatch last month’s Start Talking webinar: Digital Product Passports: can information power the circular economy?

What does going circular mean?

A circular economy is one that makes the most of our planet’s limited resources and designs out waste. It’s the opposite of the linear product system we have now, where appliances and products are designed with short lifespans, are difficult to repair if they go wrong, and difficult to recycle valuable elements when they reach the end of their useful life.

In a circular economy, products are kept in use for as long as possible. Consumers will trust that what they buy will last and last, and if anything goes wrong that it can be fixed easily and quickly.

The change to circular is long overdue – the energy used and waste created from short-lived, low-durability products has created a waste crisis of epic proportions:

Global consumption of materials like biomass, fossil fuels, minerals is expected to double in the next 40 years, and annual waste generation is projected to increase 70% by 2050. So, action is crucial and it can’t wait” 

Wotjek Sitartz from the European Commission, Start Talking, 22 June 2023

Across the product supply chain, there’s been a lot of work on how to redesign the current system to one designed around keeping products and their components in use for the longest possible time.

Sharing detailed product information will be a critical part of this, enabling everyone across the supply chain to have visibility on how components can be repaired, recycled or remanufactured. Enter the EU’s plan for Digital Product Passports.

Digital product passports help close the information gap

A key part of the EU’s Circular Economy Action Plan are proposals for Digital Product Passports (DPPs). DPPs sit within  a wider package of measures on the circular economy including the Proposal for Ecodesign for Sustainable Products Regulation which establishes eco-design requirements.

Under the scheme, certain products will have their own ID and, by scanning a product QR code, consumers will be able to access information at the point of purchase and throughout its lifetime on how to repair and recycle the item.

The information within a DPP will also be available to repairers and manufacturers and even policy makers or enforcement agencies who want to track the longevity of products, or make sure that claims about repairability and durability are accurate.

Chiara Giovannini from ANEC, the voice of consumers in European standards-setting, was positive about the potential for DPPs to deliver transparency which would help with market surveillance and making sure that companies are meeting eco-design criteria. She also stressed the need to keep non-digital routes open for consumers who are not confident or willing to rely on digital information.

Appliance manufacturers represented by trade association APPLiA at webinar sounded a note of caution on the proposals for requiring more information as a solution:

 “We have an opportunity in the Digital Product Passport proposal, but it needs to be carefully assessed on a product-by-product basis. Not all information is equally useful or relevant. We should also avoid duplicating information that is already available, such as energy labels”

Korrina Hegarty, APPLiA, Start Talking, 22 June 2023

The innovation opportunity of a data and digital product passports

DPPs will be part of a new information infrastructure for products which opens up many possibilities. Euroconsumers Spanish member OCU and Italian member Altroconsumo are part of the ambitious, multistakeholder CircThread project, which has set out to demonstrate how data and information can drive consumer-centered systems for longer lasting, repairable products.

CircThread project has developed a prototype communications channel that can link up to DPPs and share critical vital information about appliances which make finding repair, replacement parts, recycling and maintenance much easier.

By opening up access to critical information about products, CircThread hopes to unlock a new way of buying, maintaining, repairing and reusing appliances and the raw materials that make them up.

Rembrandt Koppelaar from Ecowise, who have helped design the platform explained how DPPs will be used in the CircThread communications platform:

“Imagine it as a webpage going beyond product labels, serving as a dynamic diary updated at every life cycle stage. It provides information on product lifespan and promotes appliances becoming truly sustainable”  Start Talking, 22 June 2023

Consumer group ANEC were positive about the potential for a platform, but reminded us that it is the work at the design stage which will have the biggest impact.

“We need to continue to prioritise improvement in product design instead of overwhelming consumers with information” 

Chiara Giovannini, ANEC, Start Talking, 22 June 2023

Information can help consumers make choices, but it won’t be enough without the right regulatory incentives to build long lasting, repairable and recyclable products.

Are consumers ready?

Of course, CircThread’s communications platform concept may sound good on paper, but it relies on consumers playing a more active role in keeping their products in use for longer by uploading and downloading information about their products and their usage.

Euroconsumers surveyed nearly 6,000 consumers to find out where they thought information could help, and how likely they were to share information on a platform like CircThread. The results shared at the webinar included:

  • Consumers faced a significant information shortfall when their products broke down or when they wanted to dispose of them responsibly.
  • 80% are eager to use circular economy information but less than 20% willing to pay – although looked at from the other side, that’s one in five people who are willing to pay for access to better information about their products that could help them last longer.
  • There was a willingness to share information, but barriers such as concerns about how personal information would be used remain.

The CircThread communications platform is now being piloted with real consumers in Spain, with another pilot planned for Italy in November 2023.

The verdict on Digital Product Passports

There’s no doubt that making more detailed data on products available to more people across the product lifespan will be helpful.

The key to success however seems to lie in making sure information-driven solutions, particularly those that require the involvement of consumers, fit into a wider effort to put the whole sector on a path to circularity and sustainability.

The size of the shift required to make the circular economy a reality requires all hands on deck, but perhaps key to it all is not data or technical solutions but simple economics. As we were reminded at the close of the webinar:

“The appliance sector can already make products that last for decades if not longer…. The challenge is economic mostly, the high end appliances last 30 years or more, how can we make this available for everyone?”

Rembrandt Koppelaar, EcoWise, Start Talking, 22 June 2023

You can rewatch last month’s 60 minute Start Talking webinar: Digital Product Passports: can information power the circular economy? where you’ll hear more about the consumer survey, CircThread’s communications platform, the view from manufacturer representative APPLiA, the European Commission’s ambitions for a circular economy and from ANEC, the European consumer voice in standard-setting.

circthread Horizon2020