Remanufacture is the practice of taking end-of-life items and re-engineering them back to as-new condition. It is a well-established practice in the United States, attracting government subsidies. In the UK it has, to date, been unrecognised. However, the remanufacturing sector is already recovering about 270,000 tonnes of materials, according to researcher David Parker, with an equivalent carbon saving of 800,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide.
The benefits of re-engineering a worn-out engine or an electrical transformer include simple economics: there is a bigger profit margin than manufacturing from raw materials. There are also material and energy savings.
In highlighting the benefits of remanufacture, Oakdene Hollins has contrasted it with recycling, over which it has some advantages. Remanufacture has the potential to create 50,000 UK jobs. It is a labour-intensive process, but being skilled work, it is enjoyable and satisfying, unlike standing at a sorting belt in a material recycling facility.
With the waste industrys poor health and safety record currently in the spotlight, remanufacturing poses a much lower risk at less than three accidents per 100,000 employees per year. This compared with recycling of scrap, which has 27 accidents per 100,000 employees or waste management in general, which has 10 accidents per 100,000.
Items already being remanufactured include photocopiers, tyres, aero components, carpets, machine tools, refrigeration, transmissions and engines. Very few post-consumer goods are currently remanufactured, but with the forthcoming Waste Electrical Electronic Equipment Directive, there may soon be many opportunities for remanufacture of larger items although it is unlikely that all those low-value toasters, electric toothbrushes and hair dryers will be an attractive proposition for remanufacture.
There are times when it is not sensible to remanufacture. For example, if the worn-out product uses an outdated technology that is less energy efficient, it is better to send the old one for recycling. Goods that are not designed for disassembly, which have to be damaged in order to get them apart, are also not worth handling in this way. But eco-design initiatives promoting modular design practices could change this.
Another factor which would deter remanufacture is technology change. The first mobile phones, for example, were brick sized, compared with newer models, and miniaturisation has affected a large number of items, making the extension of life for the older model pointless, as no-one would want it.
Remanufacture offers new business opportunities for the service sector and, at present, UK remanufacturing is strongest in high-value or high-technology areas, such as aerospace, military and power turbines. Leasing and hire options offer a material-efficient approach that many in the environmental movement have long been promoting, and which increase the likelihood that equipment will be both well-maintained in use and taken back for upgrading or remanufacture.
Remanufacture can be handled by the original manufacturer, by an agent working on behalf of the original manufacturer or by independents. With the deliberations on the End-of-Life Vehicles Directive, we are already seeing the complexities and conflicts that this provokes, with brand owners anxious to keep control of their own products.
Just like recycling, remanufacture cannot solve all our waste problems but as part of our armoury, it has clear benefits in terms of resource use, product life extension and energy. u
For copies of the report Remanufacturing in the UK: a significant contributor to sustainable development? contact RRF (firstname.lastname@example.org)