Circular Economy

Creative Commons: OpenClipart-Vectors

When the Paris Agreement was signed on 12th of December 2015 by 195 parties, it highlighted the importance of sustainable consumption and production in developed countries as part of limiting the global temperature to under 1.5 degrees this century.

Part of the agreement (article 4, paragraph 19) referred to long term strategies in ensuring low greenhouse gas emissions. It’s here where the proposal for repair begins to appear. Whilst France and the UK highlight the need for repairability and reuse to support a low carbon economy only Germany, sufficiently explores this aspect of the economy with respect to the EU Eco-design Directive.

This would also supplement the EU’s Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive, commonly known as WEEE. At present the UK has met its 2016 target of 45% of electronic waste to be recycled, however, it will struggle to achieve the 65% increase that’s been set.

Shopping is the future

In our current linear consumer economy, advertising spending is a significant aspect of the economy, generating £12.98 billion in total, with the retail sector leading in digital spending at £1.88 billion. Online sales of electrical goods alone, reached £1.3 billion in 2017. But this is only a partial story, as according to a report by the Global e-waste monitor, in 2016, 44.7 million metric tonnes of e-waste were generated equivalent to almost 4,500 Eiffel Towers. The UK generates the second highest amount of e-waste within Europe.

Obstacles to a linear economy are commonly seen by companies as barrier to innovation. For instance, according to research by Which? numerous branded washing machines have sealed drums (making it impossible to repair). Green Alliance notes that 125 million smartphones are unused in the UK. This is perhaps due to the fact that leading brands, such as Apple and Samsung make it very difficult to repair and source spare parts easily.

As of 2016, the value of all the raw materials found within e-waste is estimated to be more than £48 billion (€ 55 billion) with only 20% recycled globally. There are other ethical concerns as well, the metals contained in smartphones such as gold, tin and iron are difficult to obtain and the impact of mining for them has caused substantial environmental damage.

Limits to landfill

Landfill is close to capacity in England and will run out in under 7 years. Over 1,000 historic landfill coastal sites across England are now at risk from extreme weather and flooding due to climate change, as they predate the EU’s landfill directive, they are liable to expose hazardous waste such as asbestos and chemicals.

After Brexit the WEEE Directive (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive) will be transferred into UK law and continued to be employed. A consumer poll in 2017 of 2,426 people revealed that the majority (82%) do recognise the benefit of recycling and that it makes a difference.

Alongside this UK consumers are keen to repair old appliances rather than buy new ones and across the EU it polls highly at 77%. With smartphones being held onto for over two years and over £680m a year being spent on repairing existing handsets, we’re clearly shifting towards a circular economy.

Heading towards the circular economy

The launch of the repair café in Amsterdam, 2007 was a shift in how we approach e-waste, and now has 1721 cafés internationally. In the UK, we’ve seen the Restart Project that was started in 2013. This is coupled with the Open Repair Alliance, which looks to document repairs made and create an open standard for repair.

The impact of right-to-repair will be felt differently across the EU. France is looking at implementing a law to label products with information about the availability of spare parts. Finland is exploring municipal lending, leasing and renting of electrical equipment. Sweden has proposed tax changes, allowing its citizens to claim back half of the repair costs and labour of white goods from their income tax.

The economic potential of reusing electronics has yet to be fully realised with WRAP’s 2013 estimate of £720 million for two to three-year-old laptops and £90 million for tablets. The market for IT spares alone is worth £10 million. Ikea is now trialling a furniture reuse and recycle system.

The right to repair encompasses more than just repurposing electronics to avoid landfill waste. As a value system, it’s one that upholds environmental limits and respects human rights. The German designer, Dieter Rams was famously quoted as saying ‘Less, but better’. That certainly is the direction we should be heading in.