Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Why the 3Rs model is no longer fit for purpose

Those of us who have been around green issues for a while are very familiar with the 3Rs mantra – reduce, re-use, recycle – and that waste hierarchy also forms the foundation for the work of bodies such as WRAP which support companies that want to use resources more efficiently. But as we approach a resource-constrained not-so-distant future there’s a growing body of thought that we need to go further than the incremental improvements that the 3Rs model supports.

Certainly, that’s the view of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which works to promote the concept of the Circular Economy. MacArthur argues that our traditional economy is founded on an essentially linear take-make-dispose model which relies on an abundant supply of raw materials that can be manufactured into consumer goods with a finite life that will be discarded as soon as something newer and shinier comes along. The Circular Economy model strives to create a system where mineral and organic resources are endlessly cycled through the economy, reducing our need to find new raw materials and freeing ourselves from the issues of resource scarcity, price volatility and so on that are the inevitable outcome of a rapidly growing and urbanising population combined with an undeniably finite planet.

Of course we like our models to be alliterative whenever possible, so the MacArthur adaption adds “rethink and redesign” above the apex of the traditional 3Rs model. In MacArthur’s diagram they share a box, but I’d go one step further and place rethink above redesign in a separate box. Our mindset tends to be firmly centred on products and redesign can easily be assumed to apply to a product; using “rethink” as the first prompt makes a more explicit point that we need to go right back to basics and reconsider what human need we are trying to meet and in what form. For example, to use an example borrowed from Kingfisher, customers who visit a B&Q store to buy a drill don’t necessarily need one. What they need is a hole, and B&Q is focusing on finding better ways to meet the need for a hole rather than simply redesigning a more efficient drill.

There’s scope to improve the waste hierarchy at the bottom of the pyramid, too – and WRAP is already using a model that includes recovery of energy from waste as the step below recycling. But it’s widely accepted that 80% of the environmental impacts of a product are determined at the design stage. So once we’ve re-imagined the customer need there’s a compelling case for making sure that, if a product is the appropriate way to fulfil it, then it’s designed to not just use resources efficiently but make it as easy as possible to recover them when the product is no longer fit for re-use.  Kyocera has been thinking this way since 1992, when it launched its first ECOSYS printer, designed to both reduce consumables waste and to facilitate disassembly and recycling at end of life. Ahead of its time? Perhaps – but it’s reassuring to see that such ideas are finally becoming mainstream.

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Extreme Freegling and the waste-free office move

When my employers decided to move offices, I set myself the challenge of ensuring that we could achieve it without sending anything to landfill. A significant challenge, since we had decided that we would have all new IT equipment and furniture, but we've managed to achieve it.

If the new kit sounds extravagant, it's worth bearing in mind that most of our furniture has been in the business longer than me - and I celebrated 20 years with the company in June. Our IT assets have been seriously sweated; most of our PCs were more than 8 years old and were proving difficult to keep running. We were moving to a building that we had refurbished to SKA Gold environmental standard after it had stood vacant for several years and it would have been a pity to fill it with a mish-mash of aged furniture and IT equipment. But how to make sure we minimised our waste?

First port of call was our own staff. Reading-based colleagues were offered the opportunity to take things for their home offices - and many did. Next, we talked to our local community foundation. Connect Reading acts as an interface between business and the third sector and was happy to let its charity members know that we had items to donate. Five of its members, plus two charities with which staff had family connections, expressed an interest and were given the opportunity to visit and tag anything they wanted. Our relocation contractors, ActiveFM, agreed to deliver these items free of charge which was a major consideration - transport costs often exceed the value of second-hand furniture, making it uneconomic. Thanks to Connect Reading and Active FM, I estimate that more than half of our furniture was re-homed with local charities.

Next, ActiveFM offered second-hand furniture dealers the serviceable furniture that charities didn't want, providing some income to offset our removal costs. Some of the remaining items were adopted by our neighbours and some heavy duty racking was sold on eBay. This left us with a handful of furniture items plus sundry office supplies, kitchen and cleaning equipment. Somewhat hesitantly, I began to list these items on Freegle and was blown away by the response. We quickly found homes for two glass display cabinets (taken by a local school) and our portable wheelchair ramp (taken by a Freegler for her wheelchair-bound mum) and encouraged by this success I became more ambitious. I listed some of our less ancient monitors and these were taken by the local Freegle branch, some for the use of its volunteers and some to raise funds to keep the scheme running. Other Freeglers turned up for one item and having had a look around asked about others that hadn't been listed - as a result of which the balance of our racking was dismantled and taken away. In the end even our reception desk was Freegled - and in the process I met some lovely people and heard some great stories.

Finally, we invited Return on IT to recycle all our redundant ICT equipment. Return on IT processes e-waste according to a strict waste hierarchy that prioritises re-use and recovers materials that can be re-used in manufacturing other goods. The free service is fully WEEE compliant and sends nothing to landfill - what's more a donation to charity is made in proportion to the volume of equipment recycled.

In all I did "extreme freegling" over a period of about a week, including a Sunday spent sorting and segregating to separate the items that were suitable for re-use from those that would have to be recycled. And because the network had been decommissioned at the old offices, some late nights were spent on my home PC processing Freegle requests and making contact with those who wanted the things we no longer needed. It was more time-consuming and demanded more thought than simply getting a clearance company in, but as a result we've managed to minimise the cost of moving, deliver real community benefit and not a single item has been sent to landfill.

Thursday, 21 February 2013

Serendipity and shared values

I spent today with a bunch of like-minded people exploring the barriers to a circular economy and sharing ideas for catalysing change, under the auspices of the Circular Economy Task Force convened by Green Alliance. At the moment I think it's fair to say that we have more questions than answers, but we're definitely making progress. One of the key challenges we've identified is how to incentivise the behaviours that support a circular economy, for example returning end of life products to a recycling centre. Work done for the day, I headed home and met my 12-year old son at Reading Station for an artisan ice-cream at the fabulous Tutti Frutti.

On the bus home, he told me he'd discovered his favourite place in the entire world - a city in Brazil with many green spaces, a cheap and efficient public transport system and impressively high recycling rates achieved through the issue of "green tokens" that can be exchanged for public transport tickets and fresh produce. He couldn't remember its name, but I have since found out that it's Curitiba. My son had no idea how I had spent my day, and I hadn't planned to discuss it with him, but his observation prompted a lively discussion about the merits of a circular economy. And I genuinely learned something new that is of direct relevance to my work.

I suggested, jokingly, that perhaps next time the Task Force meets, he should come with me. He was so excited by the idea that I'm beginning to think seriously about suggesting it. And not just him - perhaps a whole cohort of young people.  After all, it's their future we're trying to safeguard. And, as my son reminded me today, they might just know more than we give them credit for.

Monday, 4 February 2013

Disco for good

As disco, humour and tolerance are all high on my list of favourite things, the English Disco Lovers' mission resonates strongly with me. There's something pleasingly barmy about trying to reclaim the abbreviation EDL and dislodge a racist organisation from internet search engines through the medium of disco. Like-minded followers on Facebook have embraced the English Disco Lovers' lighthearted, pun-ridden "pro-disco, anti-racism" manifesto and responded with tweaked lyrics and puns of their own.

The aim is to attract more Facebook "likes" and Twitter followers than the English Defence League, in order to bump it off the top spot on the major search engines. The more people who visit the English Disco Lovers website - and especially link to it - the more successful the project will be. So if you, too, would like to see a world with less racism and more disco please like, tweet, +1 and blog in support of the English Disco Lovers and help bump racism out of cyberspace. Do good, have fun - and keep on dancing!

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Introduction to the Circular Economy

While businesses have largely embraced the notion that they must manage their direct carbon emissions – in terms of gas, electricity and vehicle fuel – there is a growing awareness that embodied carbon has an equally significant, although less direct, effect. For every mobile phone, washing machine or vehicle that is produced, carbon emissions are created at every stage of the lifecycle; from extracting the raw materials used in its manufacture to managing its disposal at end of life. And as the global population grows, urbanises and becomes increasingly prosperous, the amount of goods we consume grows, too. This has the dual effect of both increasing carbon emissions from the manufacture, transport and use of the products and also putting stress on the raw materials used to manufacture and transport them. This stress leads to prices of raw materials becoming both higher and more volatile, creating clear economic risks for business through the whole value chain from raw material extraction right through to the retailer.

The concept of the Circular Economy is a provocation to move from the traditional linear “take-make-waste” model of consumption to a model where resources are used more efficiently and can cycle through the economy multiple times. A Circular Economy describes an industrial system designed to be restorative or regenerative, where end of life products become a source of materials for other processes. It is consistent with a transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy, the elimination of toxic chemicals that impair re-use of materials and promotion of product design that seeks to reduce waste, facilitate repair and make disassembly and materials re-use the norm.

A Circular Economy is based on three core principles. Firstly, it aims to ‘design out’ waste. In a Circular Economy waste simply does not exist—products are designed and optimised for a cycle of disassembly and all resources are re-used. These resource cycles define the Circular Economy and set it apart from disposal and even recycling where large amounts of embodied energy and labour are lost. Secondly, circularity differentiates between consumable and durable components. In the Circular Economy consumable components are largely made of biological ingredients or ‘nutrients’ that are at least non-toxic and possibly even beneficial, and can be safely returned to the biosphere—either directly or in a cascade of consecutive uses. Conversely, durable components such as engines or computers are made of technical nutrients, like metals and most plastics, and are designed from the outset for reuse. And finally, the energy required to fuel this cycle should be renewable by nature, to decrease resource dependence and increase system resilience.

The Circular Economy also redefines the customer’s need as functionality rather than necessarily the ownership of a product. This can lead to a new relationship between businesses and their customers based on product performance. An economy where users usually buy products outright encourages industry to make them “to a price” which can lead to longevity being designed out in order to remain competitive at the point of sale. In a Circular Economy, durable products are leased, rented or shared – and if they are sold, there are incentives in place to encourage the return of the product or its components and materials at the end of its period of primary use, so that they may be re-used. The innate resistance to paying more for a durable product that will last longer may be addressed by new “pay as you use” pricing models.

From a business perspective, the Circular Economy doesn’t just address the risks of resource scarcity and price volatility, it offers the opportunity to create new customer value through disruptive innovation. It invites businesses to re-think how they fulfil customer demand and to develop new business models that continue to create wealth and provide employment while at the same time conserving resources and reducing carbon emissions.
 
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation has fantastic free resources for educators and businesses who want to learn more.

Friday, 11 January 2013

Falling out of love with the Kindle

An article in last weekend's Observer brought into focus my growing ambivalence about my Kindle. When the Kindle was launched I gleefully joined the early adopters, revelling in the fact that I could read without consuming paper and, with lifelong 3G included, get new reading material on demand without relying on WiFi. But over the last year or so, I've lost some of that early enthusiasm. I'm no longer the eager advocate that I once was, for several reasons.

Disquiet about labour standards in the factory where the Kindle is made. Kindles are manufactured at Foxconn in China, which has been criticised for its poor labour conditions and its high suicide rate - and is now the subject of bribery allegations. I've avoided buying Apple products for several years because it manufactures there but only recently I was dismayed to discover that the Kindle is made there, too.

Concern about Amazon's tax status. Recently, Amazon has been criticised for its policy of tax avoidance. I now try not to buy from organisations that don't pay their fare share of tax but, once you've acquired a Kindle, it's not so easy to acquire your ebooks from another source.

Reluctance to trade with monolithic corporations. The problem with massive corporations like Amazon is that they squeeze smaller operators out of the market, reducing choice and damaging competition. By buying from them, we perpetutate a business model that will ultimately undermine our power as consumers.

Of course, other e-readers are available and may not suffer from the issues outlined above, but one inevitable drawback remains:

Ebooks remove the ability to share. One of the joys of paper books is that they can be freely loaned, borrowed and sold on - sadly not the case with ebooks. In my experience, most paper books are read only once by each person, but the more people that have the opportunity to become a pass-on reader, the more environmentally efficient the original production of that book becomes. Authors may, for this reason, prefer the ebook model but the passing on of paper books went on for many centuries before the invention of ebooks without any apparent damage to the livelihood of authors.

The pass-on readership of paper books has the potential to make them vastly more carbon-efficient than might otherwise be the case. And while the lending library quite rightly gets the final word as the most eco-efficient way of reading, it has the potential to erode the earning potential of authors. Maybe it's time to move to an entirely new business model for reading material - the rental of paper books, with a royalty paid to the author each time the book is rented. Circular economy thinking applied to the written word.

Friday, 21 December 2012

Whoops (no) apocalypse

Despite the warnings of the doom-mongers, the end of the Mayan calendar didn't bring about the end of the World on 21st December 2012. So now what? Life goes on as usual, no doubt. But while the end of the World may not be imminent, we seem determined to live our lives as if there was no tomorrow.

We consume as though resources are limitless, burn fossil fuels without consideration of their effect on the climate and relentlessly pursue material wealth as if it was the only measure of a life well lived. And yet we know that our planet is finite and that nobody dies wishing they had spent more time at work or bought more stuff. We're supposedly Earth's most intelligent life-form, and yet to observe us objectively one would have to conclude that we had a collective death-wish.

Some academics put a different interpretation on the fact that the Mayan calendar ran out on this day - they posit that the end of the calendar marks the start of a new age of enlightenment. Sadly, that interpretation doesn't seem to be any more accurate. It seems increasingly inevitable that the human race will ultimately bring about its own downfall by undermining the ability of future generations to meet their needs.

So as we celebrate the face that the World didn't end today, let's try to start living as if we intended to stay here.

(My thanks to @penny_walker_sd for the tweet that sparked this train of thought)