The Great Recovery
Sophie Thomas writes that with millions of tonnes worth of valuable resources going into landfill every day, the economic case for recovering and reusing raw materials is stronger than ever before. What part can designers and businesses play in this process?
In 2011, I joined a UK government mission to the Netherlands to study Dutch strategies for ‘designing out landfill’. The Dutch introduced a ban on landfill in 1995 and are now pioneering new approaches to resource efficiency. Our visit took us to facilities that sorted, recovered and managed ‘resource’ (or waste, as we were still defining it in the UK).
One of these facilities recycled fridges and freezers, and I was struck by the variety of models being processed. Every single appliance was different. This meant that every time a disassembler tried to get the valuable compressor out from the back of a fridge before it was crushed, a new set of challenges arose, with different sizes and types of screws, fittings and frames all blocking the way. It made me think that if fridge designers were to work alongside disassemblers, they would see with their own eyes the problems inherent in their designs. Perhaps we would have better fridges and better designers as a result.
Waste affects every part of our society. Businesses, the government, local authorities and the public all play a part in its creation, management and disposal. A staggering 98% of the resources that flow into the economy end up as waste within only six months. The UK alone produces about 290 million tonnes of waste a year. While there have been significant improvements in the UK’s recycling rates in the past decade, we are still losing valuable streams of resource into landfill.
The problem is exacerbated by what organic chemist Mike Pitts has called the “ecological rucksack” of materials used to make a product. Innocuous objects such as plastic toothbrushes are heavier than expected, with more than 1.5kg of material used in production. Even a simple A4 piece of white paper requires 10 litres of water to produce.
Last year’s government review of waste policy deemed the current levels of raw-material usage in the UK manufacturing industry to be unsustainable. Like many developed countries, the UK economy is highly dependent on several at-risk materials, and resource security is a growing concern. Nearly a third of profit warnings issued by FTSE 350 companies in 2011 were attributed to rising resource prices.
As a society, we seem to have very little knowledge of, or interest in, what goes into making the products we so happily consume. Take our love of the mobile phone. In 2011, when the world’s population was 6.8 billion, there were five billion mobile-phone subscriptions globally. In the UK, there were 80 million mobile-phone subscriptions, with 1,000 mobile-phone replacements sold every hour. At the same time, an estimated 80 million working mobile phones were retained in UK households, lost in drawers and cupboards.
Every mobile phone is made from approximately 40 different elements, including copper in the wiring, indium in the touchscreen and gold in the circuit boards. As the price of metals and minerals rises, it increasingly makes financial sense to recover these elements. There is more gold in a tonne of mobile phones than there is in a tonne of mined rock from a gold mine, and it is far easier to extract it from a phone than from a mine. Other elements could also be extracted, if mobile phones were designed to facilitate material recovery.
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates that the EU could save at least £220bn a year if we were to design products in a way that supported resource recovery and eliminated waste streams. This model of a circular economy is a shift from the old ‘take, make, waste’ linear business model to one of ‘lease the resource, make the product, recover the resource and then remake it’.
With its expertise in design and manufacturing, the UK is well placed to create these cyclical systems. Janez Potocnik, European commissioner for the environment, has said that a move towards the circular economy would reduce material costs and exposure to volatile resource prices. It would also promote innovation and employment in growth sectors of the economy and increase Europe’s competitiveness in the global marketplace.
Potocnik adds: “Many business leaders believe the innovation challenge of the century will be to foster prosperity in a world of finite resources.”
Built to last
Design sits at the heart of the challenge to create a circular economy. Approximately 80% of a product’s environmental impact is ‘locked in’ at the design stage, so understanding production cycles and reconfiguring them for maximum effectiveness is key. We cannot simply substitute one material for another without understanding the consequences.
Designing in this way is complex. Gone are the days of ‘sustainable’ or ‘eco’ design, when a simple change of material to a recycled alternative would give a project environmental credibility. This system calls for investigation into materials at a molecular scale. It demands true co-creation, with all stakeholders involved in the lifecycle of a particular product. Finally, it requires a new logistical approach to capturing and recirculating materials.
This effort needs to be led by businesses. At the moment, it is rare to see a company setting a design brief that includes requirements to recover material. Now, however, the business model is changing and the economic imperative for recovery is growing stronger.
In this context, the RSA is launching a programme called the Great Recovery. Run in partnership with the Technology Strategy Board, with support from industrial players, it will seek to fill the knowledge and innovation gaps associated with designing for a circular-economy model.
We will start by building a community of designers and connecting them with networks of scientists, business leaders, academics, manufacturers and materials recyclers. Over the course of the programme, we will run a series of demonstration projects, many of which will be hosted at recovery centres, to discover how ‘problem products’ could be better designed. We will also collect data to help identify opportunities and challenges, and will use this information as the foundation for developing new industrial-education programmes.
Future phases will take the lessons learnt to businesses, the government, education and, ultimately, consumers. This way, we will ensure that everyone who has a role or an influence in the lifecycle of a product understands how they can play their part in redesigning the future.
Sophie Thomas is the RSA’s co-director of design.
We would like to hear from Fellows who have expertise in manufacturing, design education, waste or sustainability. If you would like to contribute to the Great Recovery project – perhaps by adding your own knowledge of designing for a circular economy, attending a design workshop or publicising the project among designers at your workplace – please contact Sophie Thomas.
How much could we save?
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation notes that if washing-machine manufacturers were to lease high-quality machines (capable of more cycles), rather than selling low-quality ones, they could create significant savings for themselves, consumers and the planet. Replacing a machine capable of 2,000 wash cycles with a 10,000-cycle model results in 180kg less steel, a reduction in carbon-dioxide emissions of more than 2.5 tonnes and a fall in the cost per cycle to the consumer from 17 pence to eight pence.
A typical new-build house of 80 square metres creates 9.6 tonnes of waste material – the equivalent of five skips – in its construction. This costs £6,715 per house (£5,439 in the cost of lost materials alone). England built 128,680 houses in 2010, equating to 1,976,500 square metres of waste.