Recycling Is Not Enough. A New Approach Is Necessary For A Circular Economy.
Recycling was never going to be the infallible, planet-saving solution we all wanted it to be. It was merely a first step. An important step, certainly – but a first step nonetheless.
Despite making a degree of progress on the recycling front, we remain very much a disposable society. Even if we all became serial recyclers tomorrow, it wouldn’t be enough to turn the tide and save future generations.
To pave the way for real change, we must adjust our way of thinking and embrace a different type of system: a circular economy.
What is the circular economy?
Circular economies are regenerative by design – squeezing every drop of potential value out of products. As a process that rejuvenates parts, enhances their quality and extends their overall lifespan, repairing is an integral process in the circular economy – a system that strives to ensure longevity through reuse and minimise waste as a result.
The term used to collectively describe discarded electronic products like computers, phones, tablets and other portable devices is e-waste – and its growing numbers are proving a concern. Not only are we producing more than ever before, we’re also running out of places to put it.
In January 2018, China, who were taking as much as 70% from the UK, began to refuse foreign rubbish. With the expansive dumping ground gone, Brits are now forced to make a decision: turn to other nations for e-waste solutions, or reconsider the use-and-throw mindset that’s part and parcel of our culture. China’s refusal is the biggest motivation anyone could need to reassess their habits and turn their focus to recyclable living.
‘Reduce, reuse and recycle’,
The 3 Rs, should be considered the bare minimum when it comes to the pollution epidemic . They simply aren’t extensive enough to convey the immediate necessity for the market to change and create a circular economy. Instead, our aim should be highlighting the benefit of a high-functioning repair economy.
How do we achieve an effective repair economy?
There will need to be two changes made in the production and manufacturing process before a repair economy can develop. Those changes are a refocus in priorities and product redesign.
In order to refocus we need to challenge the current perceptions that all stakeholders have of product usage, we have to identify who these stakeholders are: the government, the manufacturers, and the consumer. By refocusing the conversation so that we are addressing the cause of a disposable society instead of the aftermath of one, we are better positioned to tackle these issues directly.
The focus of the government currently concerns the symptoms of pollution as opposed to the solution (focus and design). One immediate change that the government could consider is to listen to the ‘Right To Repair’ movement. As we’ve discussed previously at BuyAnyPart, manufacturers have been guilty of preventing owners in the agricultural sector from fixing their own equipment, largely for the sake of profit – and this is currently permitted by the government.
There has been some progress in the form of the Scottish government, who in February 2018 supported funding for nine Scottish remanufacturing projects to make a waste-free economy. The funding comes from the Scottish Institute for Remanufacture who rework a product back to its basic form in order to ‘upcycle’ it so that it is just as good as (if not better than) it was originally.
However, according to John Mackie, one of Scotland’s pioneers in this field, there “needs to be additional legislation” from the government in order to accurately label a product ‘remanufactured’. Mackie, who owns a remanufacturing vehicle transmissions outfit, believes that there are those who will call their products ‘remanufactured’ when in reality it is just second-hand, which damages the reputation of the work.
As with government, manufacturers should similarly listen to the consumer when it comes to sustainability and reusability. Collaboration with other businesses can enable them to develop circular economy products, remaining conscious during their product development that parts should be made with the intention of reuse.
The mobile phone sector has been applying these principles in their products for some time, selling their own refurbished devices at a discount. This life cycle also creates an independent market: those who collect old phones with the intention of fixing them and selling them on to consumers who can’t afford the latest models.
Additionally, when there is more of a collaborative process in the product design and creation, the life cycle of a product is likely to increase. This is a result of multiple departments recognising the value of resales and parts being reused, thereby noticing the opportunities for profit outside of the initial first-hand purchase. Manufacturers should refocus on how to maximise their products’ lifespans much earlier on in their life cycles for the purposes of both profit and sustainability.
In general, consumers have been shown to increasingly prefer sustainable brands, which again ties in to the need for manufacturers to refocus. However, if consumers were better aware of how to repair their own equipment and had access to the necessary instructions and spare parts, product life cycles would increase greatly.
Ben Gleisner of Conscious Consumers, a platform that provides retailers with data about customers’ ethical purchasing habits, argues that Generation Z (those born between the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s) are the “most environmentally and socially ‘aware’ consumer market yet”. These same consumers also place similar values in their employment and are more likely to work for a business that acts sustainably. Consumer demand does influence market change, but this relies equally on businesses engaging with the marketplace.
Additionally, there is already large support from the public for taxes that tackle single-use waste. In August 2018, a consultation on how taxes could reduce waste and promote recycling attracted 162,000 responses. The Treasury responded by agreeing that they wanted to discourage plastics that were difficult to recycle and reduce demand for single-use items.
Longevity is key here. There are products that are currently designed with cost and simplicity in mind rather than usage. When companies use cheaper resources and materials, the likelihood of straightforward repair diminishes, condemning the product to be thrown away. Collaboration with other departments and independent companies in the early stages of product design will help extend its life cycle. By building the product with parts that are designed to be removed and replaced at a later date (using removable fasteners, for example), you lay down the foundations of a longer shelf life.
A circular economy starts with product design. It should centre on the consumers’ needs rather than product specifications, allowing its value to be recognised and long-lasting. Circular economy also relates to the amount of material needed for a product or service to function – this should be the case for making products more durable or easy to maintain so that the consumer can order the parts and repair it themselves.
Catherine Bolgar discusses the notion that the future of design will be based on easily replaceable parts and interchangeable customisations. Quoting Dave Hakkens, the inventor of Phonebloks, Bolgar argues that the market and consumers are moving towards modular design. Frustrated with disposable society, consumers would rather have a product that they can upgrade as necessary.
Hakkens, whose invention is a phone with interchangeable components, compares electronics to a bicycle – highlighting the callous nature of our relationship with electronics in western society:
“If a bike has a flat [tire] you fix it, you don’t throw [the bike] away.”
We should design products with the intention that they can be upgraded and customised to the user’s requirements when it is best suited to them.
Designing products with repair in mind opens up a more durable and renewable marketplace. People will be free to fix whenever and however they desire. When users not only have the Right to Repair, but the means to take matters into their own hands, a circular economy is born.
But we have a long way to go. Currently, most manufacturers encourage users to buy new devices rather than ‘make do’ with existing ones. Farmers, for example, are pushed to ‘upgrade’ to get their operations up and running again, and this makes it extremely difficult to locate and replace old parts. This furthers the disposable nature of agricultural machinery, and can be seen in countless other industries too.
While the economy needs to refocus and redesign before a circular economy can truly put down roots, hope isn’t lost. Organisations like BuyAnyPart remain pivotal in the move away from current habits and towards a system that prioritises reusability. 3D printing is one way in which it’s possible to buck the trend and recreate parts that are obsolete or expensive to source. You just need to look in the right places…
Join us and take part in a circular economy
Fundamentally, repairing and redesigning products reduces the strain on our recycling services and brings the responsibility of waste to the user. Climate change scientists are now, more than ever, encouraging longevity in consumer usage. We believe that the repair economy is necessary in tackling climate change, and our work gives us a platform to support organisations of all sizes to be sustainable.
At BuyAnyPart, we are committed to creating a platform for the repair economy – bringing efficiency in the supply of information, products, tools and services. We believe that, if governments, manufacturers and consumers back the necessary challenges to product usage, we can begin to solve our fast consumption, high-waste problems.
As well as being leading voices in the repair conversation, we also stock more than 500,000 parts in our online catalogue. If you can’t see what you’re looking for, our team will help you find what you need.
Please get in touch on +44 (0)7713 731 292 or [email protected] for more information.