This post is by Jonny Hazell, policy assistant on the Resource Stewardship theme at Green Alliance.
Wouldn’t it be nice if every time you ordered a new product, the person who delivered it offered to take away one of your old appliances or gadgets, which was then refurbished and resold, or disassembled and properly recycled. That would ‘close the loop’ on many products that currently disappear into landfill, incineration, or shredders.
Alongside product design changes and more closed loop reprocessing infrastructure (which I’ll come back to in a future post), getting more products back in a condition that enables reuse and remanufacturing is the key to a profitable circular economy.
To be effective, collection systems should be cheap for companies and easy for consumers. Businesses have been very clever about getting products to people conveniently and cheaply (Amazon’s free super saver shipping and ‘frustration free’ packaging spring to mind). What if we put just as much thought and effort into getting things back?
Reversing the logistics
Systems designed to transport products to consumers carefully and in good working order are well suited to preserving quality when taking products in the opposite direction. This is neatly demonstrated by the success of the partnership between the retailer Currys and the electricals reprocessor Environcom. Currys already offer to collect your old appliance when delivering a new one, and have designed their reverse logistics to take care of old appliances. These are then passed on to Environcom who repair, refurbish and sell on as many as they can. This has achieved a 15 per cent reuse rate in the process compared to an industry average of just one per cent.
Outbound delivery systems can also be used to get more resources back into recycling loops. Supermarkets are particularly good at this, with the Co-op using their delivery lorries to bring recyclable materials back from stores, enabling them to send all their food waste to anaerobic digestion instead of landfill.
Making it widespread and easy
As well as running delivery systems in reverse, we could also get more from existing collection systems. The postal service offers great potential for linking householders and small businesses into circular systems due to its comprehensive coverage. Japan is already making the most of its national postal service in this way, with householders using it to send old IT equipment back to the original manufacturers for parts reuse and recycling. Similarly, in the UK, the mobile phone reuse and recycling business Envirofone uses the postal network to maximise the range of their product collection system at minimal cost; they send you a box for your unwanted mobile, which you post back to them for free.
Capturing the prize
Local authority collection systems could also be tweaked to enable greater value capture. If you’ve ever taken an unwanted appliance to your local Household Waste Recycling Centre (more tellingly known as ‘the dump’), you’ll know that if it wasn’t broken before you chucked it into the skip, it certainly was after. This destroys any potential reuse value and makes it harder to extract working parts.
Mindful of the potential economic and environmental benefits to be gained by supporting reuse, some local authorities have already begun to tweak their collections to capture more of this value. To expand this kind of good practice further, one of the things Green Alliance has called for in Resource Resilient UK is for government and business to work together in developing guidance on how to manage bulky waste and old appliance collection systems to maximise reusability.
Getting products back is necessary to capture the value of reuse, remanufacturing, and materials recovery. Given the number of delivery lorries and vans already whizzing round the country, piggybacking on these systems is the way to make maximising collection cheap and easy.
Research from the Centre for Reuse and Remanufacturing estimates that the current appliance reuse market is worth £37.4 million. WRAP estimates that the potential reuse value of appliances in the UK is £297 million. So, if their estimates are right and we get our systems right, we’re looking at a £260 million prize.