by Ad Lansink8 minute read
At a Dutch conference on the relationship between Cradle to Cradle design and the waste hierarchy, a young executive once asked me why product reuse finds so little resonance in society. I responded with another question: how many of those present had replaced their mobile phones in the past year? The majority raised their hands.
Where innovation is moving fast, it clearly has a negative effect on the longevity of products. Faced with increasing rates of technological obsolescence we can also be too quick to opt for recycling, which though important for the recovery of rare materials ignores the win-win effects of extended product lifespans. If we are committed to developing a restorative, circular economy, product reuse certainly should resonate.
Reuse has an extensive history. Since cars first appeared on the road the automotive industry has made parts whose lives can span multiple vehicles, while old beer bottles, though showing wear from contact with filling machines, last longer than disposable packaging made of steel or aluminium. More recently, new ranges of products are also scoring well on the growing list of product reuse: wooden pallets, plastic crates, even empty cartridges for inkjet or laser printers are being granted a second and third life. Meanwhile, thrift shops thrive on the re-entry of used appliances, clothing and other products to the market.
Yet reuse of products gets too little special attention in the social and political field. This may be because reuse itself does not sit on the waste hierarchy as set out by the Waste Framework Directive (WFD). Instead ‘preparation for reuse’ is included, and is categorised as one form of ‘recovery’. From the legislative viewpoint, this remarkable apparent omission is understandable because a product that is directly reused never falls within the waste definition. Only when it has to be treated to make it serviceable again does it fall within the scope of the WFD.
Moreover, the collection of specific information about product reuse is a complex task. The European Commission publishes a wide range of absolute and relative figures for recycling and recovery across Europe. However, with rare exceptions such as WEEE, it seldom distinguishes between product refurbishing and material recycling; it seems likely that Eurostat figures are almost entirely related to recycling. Sales figures from thrift companies provide some insight into the extent of the market for reused goods, but the lack of data can make formulating policy difficult.
Routes to reuse
Thrift shops hold their position in the market mainly thanks to their range of clothing, furniture, household items and books, while second hand record stores also have their own group of enthusiastic supporters. Electronic equipment reuse is less common, owing to the rapid development of components, parts and software. The lifespan of electrical appliances – refrigerators being a noteworthy exception – is diminished by the combined power of innovation and marketing. In technologically advanced nations it can be difficult to find buyers for used devices that seem a little way from the cutting edge, although refurbished mobile phones may fare better in countries where the traditional phone function is more appreciated. Some users may remain nostalgically attached to their first computer or old camera, but product reuse in such sectors seems unlikely to become widespread.
Nevertheless, there remains considerable scope for reuse to grow. The advent of eBay, Gumtree, FreeCycle and other web-based ways for individuals to find a new home for their unwanted possessions enable them to be put before a much wider market than ever before. This may divert material from the more traditional thrift store outlets and potentially hamper their growth, but is an equally valid route to reuse.
From a legislative perspective, reuse could be encouraged through the introduction of take-back obligations for producers. But however promising in theory, the case for widening producer responsibility is far from accepted, and while this continues to be the case voluntary collection seems the most feasible option.
Where ‘reuse of products’ and ‘extending product lifetime’ do get mentioned in the WFD is within the definition of ‘prevention’. This at first sight questionable approach is in line with the view that during the use and life of a product there is no waste, with the waste phase starting when the operating mode is terminated. Moreover, the Directive defines ‘reuse’ as products or components being used again for their original purpose. Reuse is therefore a matter of extended life and a concrete contribution to the quantitative prevention of waste.
Reuse of products must be distinguished from reuse of materials (recycling) which is concerned with the recovery of secondary raw materials. Product reuse has three variants:
- Direct or primary reuse with the same function, albeit after maintenance, possibly with replacement of one or more components, as for example with mobile phones.
- Indirect or secondary product reuse in another function, probably after some refurbishment, for example the conversion of office furniture.
- Reuse of components which can maintain their specific function in a different product. Car parts are the obvious example here.
Product reuse as such was not included in my original parliamentary proposal, which has been the basis for subsequent waste legislation. When the “Lansink’s Ladder” order of preference was codified in the Dutch Environmental Management Act, influenced by discussions on the reuse of packaging, reuse of products took the place of source separation. The destination of the recovered products or materials was rated higher than the separation process used.
The distance between prevention and recycling is also clear from the Delft construction ladder, a well-known variant of Lansink’s Ladder, in which Charles Hendriks correctly positioned the renovation of homes and buildings between the prevention and reuse. Though the renovation of buildings will require the use of some additional materials, the significant extension of the useful life of the original object is just as important as reusing secondary building materials.
A recent development in the UK exemplifies the potential of an integrated approach to recovery. Engineering and construction group Balfour Beatty is carrying out a demolition project that will see 100% recovery of non-hazardous materials from the sixty-four home Armitage Court and Wenlock Court block in Manchester. It is the second phase of a regeneration programme in West Gorton to redevelop a high-rise residential development built in the 1960s, which is replacing the tower blocks with improved housing. Concrete is crushed and reused in road and sewer developments. Timber is sent to a factory for use in making MDF products and all soft furnishings are taken to a local recycling facility where they are turned into pellets to fuel power stations. So in this single project three rungs of Lansink’s Ladder are occupied: product reuse, material reuse (recycling) and energy recovery.
Live long, and prosper
Will reusing products always be the best option in environmental and economic terms? Although product reuse will not generally result in negative environmental impacts, nevertheless, in assessing whether certain products are used repeatedly or have their lifetimes extended the following aspects should be considered and if possible quantitatively assessed:
- The durability of the product
- The effects of wear and tear on the product’s functionality
- Refurbishment and maintenance costs
- Environmental costs and benefits
- The cost of logistics and transport
- The potential for partial reuse, as with automotive parts
- The value of raw materials that could be returned to the supply chain
Assessing these factors provides insight into the cost-effectiveness and feasibility of product reuse.
There will be times when factors other than waste management have to take priority. The temporary scrappage schemes established for old cars in 2009 are an example of where economic, financial and social factors overrode waste considerations. Paying a premium to encourage the scrapping of older vehicles encouraged the purchase of new, more fuel efficient and environmentally friendly cars, and contributed to keeping the automotive industry afloat through the financial crisis. Nevertheless, serviceable cars were scrapped, and the aim of extending the life of vehicles was left on the side-lines.
However, generally speaking the waste hierarchy – with product reuse rightly near the top – remains the overall guideline for the sustainable supply chain management of many products. It remains important for waste policy to focus more attention on measures targeting the top of the hierarchy. Growing the reuse sector will require greater public awareness of the value of products and the resources they embody. Achieving such growth would contribute to the system of product cycles that would constitute a circular economy, expanding the diameter of the circles as well as helping close the loop.
If you need encouragement, think back to those conference delegates and their mobile phones. It would be remarkable if expensive products often less than a year old could not more often be found a second life either at home or abroad. Doing so remains a challenge for producers and consumers to solve together.
This article is adapted and based upon a chapter of De Kracht van de Kringloop, by Ad Lansink and Hannet de Vries-in ‘t Veld, a book on the history and future of Lansink’s Ladder. It appears here for the first time in English.