In a recent speech, I outlined our vision for a UK where, by 2020, net exports improved by more than £20bn, 10,000 new recycling sector jobs were created and businesses reduced costs by more than £50bn a year. The figures, understandably, caused something of a stir. Could such growth truly be delivered, and within the 2020 timescale?
There’s growing understanding and acceptance of the role the circular economy has to play in creating the right environment for economic growth, and we believe those figures are attainable. But working out exactly how to implement this in practice is much less of a precise science.
There are plenty of areas on which we could focus but it seems to make sense to concentrate those where the greatest impact can be achieved. And one (large) area where we think there are significant economic and environmental benefits to be had is that of products.
What do I mean by products? We’re really talking here about physical goods – and the sorts of goods we think offer the greatest potential, both for economic growth and improving resource security and recyclability, are electrical and electronic goods, textiles (including clothing) and furniture.
These sectors already make a significant contribution to the UK’s economy, but at the same time create a considerable pull on resources, and contribute to C02 emissions (around 24 million tonnes).
Back in 2010, we published research that showed how some quick-win strategies focusing on these areas would not only contribute as much as 10% of the target reduction in UK domestic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2020 but also make the UK economy more resilient in the face of future resource constraints.
We focused on the key materials used in the production of these products including steel, plastics, aluminium, copper, lithium and rare earths. Our resulting recommendations for lean production, waste reduction, lifetime optimisation and new goods-to-services business models offered significant opportunities to reduce reliance on these materials – by up to 20% by 2020.
Reuse represents a major part of the solution as it keeps resources in use for longer and delivers waste reduction and longer product life, as well as lending itself to new business models.
Let’s take washing machines as an example. Around 100,000 washing machines (3%) are already reused each year in the UK, yielding £400,000 net revenue to reuse organisations, benefiting households by £35m though selling them or avoiding buying new and having a positive impact on employment of around 1,200 jobs in the UK.
Or if you look at TVs, approximately 1.3 million TVs (13%) are reused, giving nearly £12m reuse organisations, benefiting households by £500m and boosting employment by around 700 jobs.
There are other, equally compelling examples from the textiles and furniture sectors.
These figures lead us to the inescapable conclusion that if existing reuse channels were scaled up, more value still could be unlocked, delivering both economic benefits and better resource management.
While reuse (and repair) of products has demonstrable opportunities, more desirable still in a sustainable, circular economy world, is a focus on better design and waste minimisation, areas which will no doubt feature in the government’s forthcoming Waste Prevention Programme due in December.
The key to unlocking the challenges to waste prevention, or minimisation, lies in design and innovation. We need to apply smart thinking and innovative ideas at the design stage, which means being willing to rethink and challenge the status quo. If we are to create products that make it easy for us to extract maximum economic value with minimum pull on resources, getting the right design for durability and repair is critical.
The solutions needn’t be costly or complex – sometimes the answer is relatively simple.
Think about the 2.5 million washing machines which are sold each year and account for one of the highest material and production impacts of householder products in the UK.
Some manufacturers have already been ‘designing in’ ways of giving machines a longer life from using non-corroding stainless steel casing and a solid base to reduce vibration, to making internal workings easily accessible for speedy repairs and using sensors that detect and prevent the major causes of damage and failure.
Think, too, of the growth opportunities available from extending electrical product life times, avoiding premature breakdown and redeploying products through leasing, take-back and other service models. We estimate that product returns within the warranty period cost the UK economy around £400m per year. Product failures within extended warranty periods incur a similar cost.
What about the greenhouse gas emission impact? If WEEE reuse rates were doubled, there could be savings of as much as 300,000 tonnes CO2e. By the same token, increasing collection and recovery would also help address the increasingly important issue of materials resource security.
So, given that we have identified the areas where we think we can have the most impact and what the benefits would be, what are the barriers stopping us from exploiting the undoubted opportunities?
Technology is one of the challenges. For example, we know that materials recovery is an area of potential in electricals – we currently miss out on recapturing most of the precious metals. Existing waste electronics and electrical equipment recycling facilities are relatively crude and mean we lose up to 75% of the gold in WEEE. But where is the technology that will enable reprocessors to cost-effectively capture that value?
At the same time, reuse and repair of electronic goods is still very low - what more could be done to tap into this rich seam? We know that almost a quarter of WEEE disposed of at household waste recycling centres could be re-used, and that up to £220m a year could be made from these electrical goods, either by direct resale or after minor repairs. And let’s be clear here: there are significant employment opportunities associated with repair and reuse.
A common barrier across different audiences is what we might call ‘market information failure’.
For example, when it comes to collections, there’s a lack of evidence to demonstrate the benefits and ease of using reuse and repair options. There’s lack of awareness and participation by consumers and businesses in options that keep products out of the bin. There is also little understanding of the value of products and the consequences of throwing them away.
From an infrastructure perspective there’s a similar lack of evidence of viability for reuse and repair operations. The nature of existing infrastructure is in itself a barrier in that it is unable to deal with significant quantities of preparation for reuse.
There’s also lack of confidence in the functionality and quality of repaired and re-used products and no commons standards or commonly accepted specifications exist.
There are undoubtedly lots of areas to address but we think the priorities here are encouraging a new approach to design to deliver product durability; driving innovation in new business models to extend product life; improving collections and sorting; improving the demand for and confidence in reused items; and increasing end-of-life recycling so that valuable materials can be recovered. Procurement also has an important role to play here.
We’re exploring some of the potential in these diverse areas. For example, we’re carrying out design projects to identify opportunities for better design for repair and reuse in major appliances and consumer products.
We’re running trials to see if recovery of critical materials from WEEE is not only technologically possible, but economically viable.
We’re also running business model projects to identify the profitability that incentivised trade-in schemes could offer on consumer electronics. We’d welcome ideas for other new business models – tell us your thoughts!
And we’re delivering a new project on the specification of longer-life components in electronic and electrical equipment products and the cost/benefit of specifying these components.
If economic growth – including job creation – is the prize here, there are undoubtedly opportunities out there for a wide range of players in the recycling sector to be among the winners.
Liz Goodwin, chief executive of WRAP