There is no away, and there is no more
We hear that to encourage people to take care of plastics, we should give them a value, and one way that has been much discussed is through a deposit return scheme. There’s another reason to take care of plastics, and the other materials that we use and that pass through our hands every day. We are running out of the earth’s resources. These two topics are being mingled together in many discussions about ocean plastic pollution but maybe there is good reason.
In a effort to understand what concepts are being proposed to create value for waste and to encourage waste to be seen as a resource not a burden, I’ve been studying a MOOC on the Principles of the Circular Economy. If you are interested to do the same here is a link to the courses developed in conjunction with the Ellen Macarthur Foundation.
Deposit return schemes try to encourage people to return plastic as a resource into the system through which it can be recycled in the technological recycling system. Plastic is a great material in that it can easily be ‘made to be made again’ and some forms, such as PET, are extremely recyclable.
The concept of designing to be made to be made again is something which does not come naturally in what is described as our current linear economy, where we make, use, dispose. While some may want to recycle, often the primary manufacturers do not design with repair or remanufacture in mind. We have a great example of this on Amelie Rose, we have a printer which has had some sort of sensor failure during our voyage and so far, despite all the help forums we have not been able to fix it and we have not found an obvious place to drop it off for repair. I’m sure with the right advice we could repair it ourselves or if not, surely there is still value in it as something we have purchased, but how to realise this? Would it not be better for the environment and us if there was somewhere easily accessible and widely known where we could take the printer for repair or to realise some of the value of the material? As a society we need to make sure that products are designed to be repaired or recycled and this is not widely the case at the moment. We need to affect the decision making at the design stage as well as build in repair or refurbishment skills widely into the community.
To be able to encourage manufacturing businesses to consider repair, remanufacture and recycling in their design processes, inevitably, they need to see a benefit in it for them, either because we as consumers demand it of them, because they are legislated to do so or because there is a business model available as a result. Legislation such as WEEE has been introduced but has it had significant impact, it doesn’t feel like it. This may be where a service model comes in.
In a circular economy we would not buy and own products such as phones, cars, kettles, hairdryers. One of the proposed aspects of the circular economy is that it is facilitated through the delivery of services to meet our consumer needs rather than products, such that rather than a light bulb, we buy light; rather than a printer we buy printed paper; rather than a car we buy road miles. We would buy so many hundred washes of our clothes, not a washing machine. It may sit in our house or apartment, and we would have free access to it, but when it breaks or comes to the end of life it is taken away by the manufacturer for repair, or recycling and replaced. The business model is something we've seen before as a leasing model. Excellent, never without a washing machine (except on a boat of course where visiting the laundrette is a half day task!).
This model is something which is renowned in engineering circles as a way that Rolls Royce engines turned its business around decades ago. It is suggested as a solution for our mass waste management issues which stem from poor end of life design but which manufacturers care very little about, unless regulated to. By providing a business model for them to benefit from and take responsibility for the product through servicing during life and for then its recycle and reuse at the end of life, the expectation is that design will be tailored with this in mind.
How far can we extend this concept? Jet engines are one thing, a kettle is another. So far I am unsure. I think it will depend on an individuals’ preferences as well as their actual needs to be met. Rather than eating, can we be sold nutrition and the sensation of fullness? I think not. But we can be sold the service of packaged food until the point of eating the contents and then recovery of the packaging. This is something which requires a chain of value associated with the packaging, much as is being proposed by the deposit return scheme.
What about me as a case study, how do I feel about this? I typically try to avoid the service based schemes when I see them, especially as they are typically highly marketed to me. We have seen this so far mostly with software, films, TV, music and books. I don't want to sign up for Microsoft Office 365 rather than owning my own licenced version. Why? Well, because despite the frilly extras, which usually make me suspicious anyway - they clearly want me to choose that option by making it look attractive, but they never seem to have my best interests at heart (do you see them thinking, we're making oodles of money, shall we share the profits with our customers?) so it's not because of benefit to me that they are trying to nudge me towards that solution is it? Mostly it is because it suits their business model, they have saturated sales elsewhere and are looking for ways to increase their profits or generate a sustainable and predictable income.
How do we flip this mindset of being ripped off by leasing companies to a service model being good for consumers, businesses and the environment? Clearly this mindset has already shifted for some people with software products, music, books, films but even with these, to me, there is also a barrier of: “It's not yours to own and choose what to do with”. In the good ‘ole days we swapped books and CDs and it is not just the good ‘ole days: at the weekend I swapped books with Leila from Clio Marie, how good does it feel to have that personal connection. You can't do that with a Kindle. Neither can you, at some point in the future think, OK, I've worked enough, now I can have a rest and sit in the house I own, with the books I own and only have to pay for my land taxes, for my food, power, water, sewage…or is this a fallacy?
So far I have no answer to how to alter this mindset, but I shall put some brain power to it.
What is the alternative model to a manufacturer-centred service model, maybe that will look more attractive? It's could be peer-to-peer sharing of items purchased and supporting independent repair shops, disseminating the knowledge of how to repair and ensuring the tools used to repair products are accessible to the general public. This is available as a undercurrent in western societies right now and is positively a way of life in less developed countries I have visited. Maybe we need to re-cultivate this in the UK. Repair cafes are one way!
I have strayed away from plastics and ocean pollution, but it’s sometimes good to step back and see the bigger picture. We need to stop single use plastics becoming litter, which means they need either to be seen as valuable, banned or not released into unlicensed hands; biodegradable solutions are unlikely to work in many cases. Which mechanism to use will likely depend on the particular use-case. Take plastic bottles: we have probably all heard of the deposit return schemes in Norway which achieves 97% recycling rates on plastic bottles...Value created. Society educated. New resource use minimised. Sounds like a good idea…now onto the other plastic use cases.