Sustainability work at Electrolux

Sustainability work at Electrolux: an interview with Karl Edsjö

2020-06-25. Karl Edsjö is responsible for resource and recycling policy at Electrolux. He has worked as a liaison between STEPS and Electrolux since the research programme started in 2016. Electrolux is a world leading global appliance company, and produces refrigerators, dishwashers, washing machines, cookers, vacuum cleaners, air conditioners and small domestic appliances.

The main reason we are part of STEPS is that we as a company want to be at the forefront with our sustainability work. Taking active part in STEPS work can help us achieve that and to be prepared for the future. We are interested in driving the programme forward, and make sure that the areas we are interested in are covered. Our main contributions  to the program so far has been to share with the researchers and supply partners like Perstorp our needs and requirements on materials we use today and what we would like to see in the future. When new materials emerge through STEPS we will be ready to test and characterize them in our labs and test facilities. We have also taken active part in the discussions within WP 3 on what a future sustainable plastic supply system should look like.

Plastics has been a key element driving the development of the appliance industry for many decades. The durability and availability of plastics have played a key part in making our products affordable, efficient and of value to consumers. The main challenge with plastic in the appliance industry is the recycling phase were the large variety of plastics plus the existence of legacy chemicals make separation difficult. In contrast with for example packaging materials which have lifecycles of a few months, large household appliances when collected for recycling are on average 10-15 years old with many pieces being 20-30 years old. Old equipment like that contains substances that are often banned today, and which must not end up in the recycled material.

In Electrolux, we use a substantial amount of plastic for the production of our household appliances. Our hovers for example consists of two thirds plastic material. In our freezers, half of the material is plastic. We use recycled material in some parts of our products but for many components that is quite a challenge. 

For example, ten years ago, we put a lot of effort into making our vacuum cleaners more sustainable and succeeded in replacing a large part of the virgin fossil plastics with recycled plastic instead. This is the type of work we want to continue.

With products like refrigerators and freezers the challenge is more complex. There the material need to meet food safety standards since the fridge is used to store food, and the material need to have the right properties, both from a technical as well as an aesthetical point of view.

What would increase the use of recycled plastic in your products?
I would say safety, performance and price. First of all the materials must be safe and meet our requirements on hazardous substances, which are based on legal requirements but in many aspects go further. Secondly the use of recycled material must not compromise the quality of our products so the material has to fulfill certain minimum performance requirements. Finally, considering that there are always additional efforts in using recycled versus virgin, so incurring higher costs on our side, the price of recycled has to match this.

In our sustainability strategy, Electrolux has stated that one reason for us to push the use of recycled materials is to support a strong development of the supply side. Manufacturers and suppliers need to work together to make the quality better and the supply more consistent. In the end, using recycled materials should be cost effective and give added value compared to business as usual.

If the price of virgin plastic was to increase, we might be pushed to change our production further, to use more recycled. Since plastic is substantial material in our products, even a slight change in price makes a profound difference. I expect that such price increases would, if long-term and stable, help to stimulate the supply of recycled plastic to increase both in quantity and quality.

What do you think would help accelerate a sustainable transition?
In terms of pushing forward with sustainability I believe companies in general need to take more action and be a lot braver than they are now. Carbon pricing in one way or another, where you put a cost on fossil, virgin carbon could be one way to stimulate companies to be bolder. Currently I think politicians fail to take real action and instead focus too much on certain issues relating to plastic such as littering. Littering as such is a serious problem but letting littering defining the plastic agenda misses the bigger picture. The attention is not coherent, and as such risks to make plastic into a scapegoat for a range of problems. We also see a lot of micromanaging in legislation for example in terms of how much recycled plastic different products such as washing machines or plastic bags should contain. I would like to see a tougher outer framework instead, where the industry is given a frame to work within as opposed to legislation going into very specific detail. Companies can survive a lot of things if they have to but should also be given a room of maneuver to identify and work with the most efficient ways to achieve overarching targets.