27 November 2020

We can only make progress if we move in circles. This is what Mattias Lindahl, professor in environmental technology and management at Linköping University, claims. He studies the circular economy and resource-efficient business models, and since 2015 has led Mistra REES – a national research programme in the circular economy and resource efficiency, with around 20 senior researchers and doctoral students.

Mattias Lindahl is clear about this: we must change our patterns of consumption if we are going to reach global climate and environmental objectives.

“Today’s throwaway society places an enormous stress on the planet’s resources. If we are going to manage the climate challenge, it’s critical that we reduce emissions based on consumption, which means that we must convert to a more circular and resource-efficient economy – now! In addition to radically reducing the extraction of limited natural resources, we must also become much better at using equipment, machines and vehicles efficiently and intelligently.”

It has been said that the average electric drill is in operation for just over ten minutes during its lifetime. In addition to millions of drills lying around collecting dust in Swedish homes, this is an enormous waste of limited material resources. This is an example of the way in which we today own items that we hardly ever use, and that we instead should try to find alternatives to owning products. We can, for example, rent or borrow them.

Photo credit Bjorn Mattissonbjornfotograf.seExamples of the wasteful use of resources abound. One of these is that an average European car is parked for 92% of the time – but, even so, most people stubbornly hold onto the idea of owning a car instead of hiring or using a car-sharing service on the occasions when they really need a car.

“We must start to question habitual patterns of thought and use alternatives to the current linear business models.”

What do you mean by a “circular economy”?

“Basically, it’s a question of using existing resources more efficiently. Many people associate circularity with recycling – and this is not what we mean. Actually, recycling is to be seen as a final resort when all other alternatives have failed.”

The EU has drawn up what is known as its waste hierarchy, which is a way to promote the best possible use of our resources. We should primarily endeavour to avoid producing waste at all, and as a second-best we should we try to reuse anything that we no longer need or that no longer works.

“We must stop seeing ourselves as consumers and instead see ourselves as users – this will help us to make resource-friendly choices when we decide what to buy. Purchasing services or a function can often be significantly more resource-efficient than tradition purchase of an item. When selling a function, manufacturers and suppliers can emphasise quality and low life-cycle costs, rather than what they do at the moment – focussing on manufacturing products at an attractive price that are rapidly consumed, forcing the customer to buy new ones.”

Sustainable product design will play a decisive role in the transition to the circular economy. Products designed for several life cycles give rise to lower emissions of greenhouse gases, reduced material consumption, and more competitive prices.

“Poor product design may be the largest obstacle to a more circular and resource-efficient society. It’s currently unusual to include aspects of sustainability and resource-efficiency in the design process, and the idea of making it easy to repair or reuse is absent. Instead, the products are so cheap to purchase that we normally throw them away and buy new, when something stops working”, says Mattias Lindahl.

“If we introduce the circular perspective as early as the drawing board, we can create products that have been designed right from the start to be repaired or remanufactured. It can be a case of such simple things as using standard components, avoiding certain combinations of materials, and providing repair manuals.”

Remanufacture – a cornerstone of the circular transition

Remanufacture – which is the term used to describe the repair, upgrade or renovation of worn-out or old products – will play a central role in the circular economy. Interest in remanufacturing has so far been lukewarm in Europe. Things are different in the US, where an extensive remanufacturing industry was built up after the Second World War. And things are starting to happen here.

“Increasing numbers of companies are becoming interested in the circular economy, and they are starting to realise money can be made in remanufacturing”, says Erik Sundin, professor of sustainable production.

So what is “remanufacture”?

“Remanufacture is an industrial process in which a product is returned to its original condition in five basic steps – disassembly, cleaning, processing, reassembly and test. Essentially, it’s all about giving worn-out products a new life, or extending the lifetime of products that are starting to be worn out or out-of-date. It can, for example, relate to collecting and upgrading worn-out computers, or manufacturing new furniture with the aid of old frames.”

Erik Sundin points out that more companies are starting to see the commercial possibilities of remanufacturing, and realising, among other things, that there is a value in creating truly long-term business relationships with customers. Rather than simply selling a computer, sales personnel can now offer a service in which the supplier takes a comprehensive responsibility for the customer’s IT needs for a longer period. For the purchaser, it means that the need for computer equipment is satisfied at a fixed price, while the supplier can take long-term responsibility for operation and maintenance.

How can we promote increased remanufacturing?

“It must become easier to disassemble items and equipment, making it also easier to repair and reuse them. Unfortunately, modern product design often prevents this by such things as a troublesome combination of materials, a low degree of standardisation, or deficient information from manufacturers and suppliers.”

What obstacles are there to the transition to a more circular economy?

“Competition based on low prices, new manufacturing methods, and globalisation have contributed to ensuring that much of today’s equipment, items and products are so cheap that we don’t even consider repairing them when they break down. Never before has the throwaway society been as evident as it is today. We all share a responsibility here, not least when it comes to reviewing our own consumption and considering how we can contribute to increased circularity through conscious choices in everyday life”, Erik Sundin concludes.

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