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.