AV and sustainability: Repair and replace

Sustainability has become a vital aspect of life in the 21st century, but is the AV industry behind the times? Paul Milligan speaks to those trying to make a difference.

Sustainability is defined as the ‘avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance’. Up until now that is the probably the last thing you could say was true about the AV industry. Not that AV is especially negligent in this regard, but like all sections of the electronics industry, the established manufacturing plan has always been ‘build a product out of plastic/metal, when it breaks build another one and bury that first one in the ground’ (repeat to fade).

Luckily things are changing in that regard, both in awareness of sustainability, and more crucially in action, to lessen landfill, repair not replace and recycle.

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To find out how pro AV is becoming more sustainable we spoke to a cross-section of the industry (integrator, rental and staging company and two manufacturers – both finalists in the Sustainability category of the 2020 Inavation Awards) to see how difficult it was to be more sustainable, and what actions they had already undertaken in this regard.

First of all were they seeing a drive for sustainable products and greater sustainability with the industry? “It's in our culture now though isn't it?” says Mark Elliot, managing director of rental and staging company Creative Technology UK. “I look at all our staff and everyone's got water bottles, everyone gets coffee with their own sustainable cup. Our culture is definitely changing, (the move to sustainability) never meets any resistance, and 10 years ago it would have. The desire is there and it’s getting stronger year on year, particularly with larger events.” Working in the live events market, which is often based on big one-off one-day-only events, isn’t that the exact opposite of sustainability? Not really says Elliot. “The scenic elements and staging are often bespoke for the event, but that’s not what CT does, we provide AV equipment and in that respect it's actually quite sustainable. The longer we have our equipment and the longer it lasts, and services our clients’ needs then so much the better. It’s the larger events where you've got a budget to have something quite special or a one off, where you’ve got a disposal issue at the end of it.”

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So if we are seeing a drive for sustainability, who is behind it? End users? Manufacturers? Or integrators/consultants? “It’s internal for us, it's the upper management and the owner driving it. We do have certain customers that request information about our sustainability, usually those are Fortune 500 type companies, larger companies,” says Rainer Stiehl, VP of marketing, EMEA, Extron, the winner of the Sustainability Award at the 2020 Inavation Awards. It does seem as  though the size of client dictates the drive a sustainability. “It’s coming from big clients that have the money to do it,” says Anders Jørgensen of Danish integrator Stouenborg. “The more money they are willing to spend the bigger the demand is in terms of sustainability.”

Is it a moral or a financial decision for an AV company to become more sustainable? “It's a moral thing because I think most businesses should take more responsibility in saving the planet,” says Remmelt van der Woude, CEO of Netherlands-based interactive displays manufacturer Ctouch Europe, a finalist in the 2020 Inavation Awards category for sustainability. “I believe if there is an economical benefit to it then
it supports the moral side to it as well. We are not just in business because of the moral side of the business, because then it's going to be really hard to survive. What works best to adapt your business model to include a sustainability approach and then a new business model comes out.” Others feel the economics of it are really driving matters forward, “A rental business naturally strives towards sustainability because of commercial aspects. Once the equipment is past its sell by date or is no longer popular then you've got something you need to look at, but we move technology from prime markets with higher budgets through to the lower budgets, so we actually get quite a lot out of the equipment,” says Elliot. There is a lot of talk around sustainability, but in a lot of occasions it's not being backed up with action says van der Woude, “Just because you have a car park full of hybrid or electric cars you can’t say that you have a sustainable approach. Our building is completely powered by solar cells, we generate over 800,000 kilowatts per year with solar panels, which supplies 75-80% of our total energy consumption.”

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One issue hampering adoption of sustainable technology is a lack of data out there for
integrators and consultants. How can you prove you are using this technology if you aren’t given the data to back it up? “I wrote to lots of big pro AV manufacturers and they didn't reply. I had two projects in Denmark where we've been asked to deliver as sustainable products as possible. I asked them can you tell us how your company works in terms of reducing the carbon footprint, sustainability and how you recycle your products? And do you have cradle-to-grave calculations on your products? I got an answer from Legrand which was the only one out of 10 companies I wrote to.” It’s
disappointing to hear and there is clearly work to do in that regard.

How are manufacturers making sure their products offer a lower carbon footprint over their lifetime? By taking a closer look at what’s inside, increasing the efficiency of the product and by making products last longer are key issues here. CTouch Europe started a project two years ago to list all the materials within their products (glass, aluminium, steel, PCBs, plastic, glue etc). “Based on that we created a CO2 footprint on how to get to those materials. So before they land in the product as an assembled product or finished product, what's the footprint of the different parts to get to this stage? That’s the starting point in making this list, before we look at packaging etc,” says van der Woude. “How is the customer using the product? In a CO2 footprint the three key domains are how do you get to your CO2 footprint in the production process, What's the CO2 footprint for the lifetime of the product, and how can you extend the lifetime of your products?”

For Extron tackling the issue of power supplies was a crucial one, because as Steihl puts it “the number of external power supplies that end up in landfills after two or three years is incredible.” Following a huge development project, Extron created its EverLast power supplies which run for 1,000,000 hours MTBF, which equates to 40 years of use. Power is also a huge issue in live events, but the answers for this problem are a little hard to find, as CT’s Elliot explains. “We need power to power our equipment, and
although efficiencies are improving generally, it is a real concern. If somebody wants a big stadium lit up with projectors you’re going to need some power for that, you probably need some cooling for that too because the projectors will get hot. The other thing is people want to do events all around the world, but the equipment and the resources are not all around the world, so we've got to move them and typically time is of the essence so to make it quicker we fly. So we spend quite a lot of money on air freight, and there is probably the black mark on us for that, but how do we get around that?”

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With old or broken products getting dumped in landfills, a situation no one appears to be content with, is it time we began to prioritise repair over replace? And what steps do we need to take to make that norm? Money again is an issue, as this example from Jørgensen illustrates; “We’ve recently bought a 4K 105-in LG screen, it got damaged, so we said let’s get it repaired rather than just buy a new one, it was 40% more expensive to repair it than purchase a new one.” If you are getting punished financially for following sustainable principals how are we ever going to progress? Luckily a few manufacturers are looking to a more modular future to solve some of these issues. “We ask the factory not to glue products, or to attach them too solidly to other materials, because it creates a barrier to the replace process. Because if stuff is glued together,
you cannot unglue it and it's more difficult to replace,” says van der Woude.

Extron too is looking to produce more flexible products in the future, to cut down on waste. “The backplane of our XTP matrix switcher had a 50Gbps backplane long before HDMI 2.1 ever came out which needs 48GB. We did that so people wouldn't have to throw that central part of the system away, we could have upgradable cards that would slide in that when HDMI 2.1 came out, so we could update it that way,” says Stiehl. Another good example of this thinking says Jørgensen comes from Meyer Sound with its Galaxy platform. “If you open the lid of that there's only electronics inside one quarter of the box. The reason for that is because they want to have space to be able to over the next 10 years to develop that product. That kind of mindset doesn't mean its offering sustainability now, but it makes it sustainable and more efficient over the next 10 years.”

Recycling is the one principle of sustainability that has been around the longest in the public consciousness (repairing electrical products has been around since the 1950s but was always done to save money not for any ecological considerations). What steps are the industry taking to make use of recycled products? “When the product comes to us in the warehouse 80% of the glass, steel and aluminium is recycled. By having a modular build, we also make sure that the parts you take off and cannot repair can
be easily recycled. And we work along with specialised partners to recycle the product,” says van der Woude.

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Ctouch is keen to see older products live as long as they can, even if their initial purpose has been fulfilled, but this idea is also profitable; “From a commercial point of view we can have the same products sold two or three times. For a product for corporate use they will choose a high-end product, after three or four years this product is still qualified to serve in the education space. And the education customer will still get a product that’s up to date (through software updates or by adding modules), and then it can serve another four, five or six years. And then you have an additional business model because you can have different sales cycles.”

Is ISO14001, the international standard for applying an environmental management system (an EMS is a series of processes to enable an organisation to reduce its environmental impact and increase its operating efficiency) having an impact on the AV world? Opinion is mixed. “ISO 14001 is not ideal, unless you go up in scale as a company. It’s really for 100+ employees before it actually means something,” says Jørgensen. “ISO is a leadership model, what we really need is AVIXA to do a recycled standard that takes in consideration how the world works today for AV businesses.” Elliot says ISO14001 wasn’t an absolute must for CT, “But it’s definitely a win for a business working at the level that we are. It’s a big tick, you can reference it, it says we’ve got some things in place.”

When all is said and done what we are talking about with sustainability is really just a change of mindset. We need to forget buy and replace and think repair and upgrade instead. We need to make products with the ability to be easily upgraded to stop obsolescence, and we need to give integrators, consultants and end users the data they need to make informed choices about sustainability. End users have to choose quality products that may cost a little more, but are efficient and will last for years, and we need to stop ‘hang and bang’ installations. “It leaves no room for products that are green and energy saving,” says Jørgensen. “I think we need to have a change of mindset, and our customers need to understand that you can actually get a good installation, maybe it costs 5% more, but it will also save energy.”

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