Most products we buy are made with a linear product life cycle in mind – and this is one of the major reasons for our climate and plastic pollution crisis.

Linear means that when you finish using a product, or it breaks down, it is highly likely to end up in a landfill or an incinerator. And the cycle begins again with a new product being made to replace it: we take 60 billion tonnes1 of new raw materials from the earth each year, apply energy in the form of burning oil, and in China, to a very large extent, coal, and ship the finished goods – more product miles. 

There is a different way – adopting an economy based on circular product design – the Circular Economy. Here in the UK, we are seeing a growing realisation by companies and brands that things must change. Let’s look at the theory, and also at some examples of how UK companies are putting this into practice. 

We take 60 billion tonnes of raw material out of the earth every year.

Finbar Livesay, “From Global to Local”.

Product Development

A lot of products are made using multiple components and materials making them difficult to strip down, take apart and separate into different reusable categories. This is an expensive extra cost for the manufacturer, and so they often don’t bother.  

The drive for using cheaper manufacturing locations around the world often means that lower-quality materials are used – products are deliberately not “built to last”, either for fashion or cost-competitive reasons. And the product miles between manufacturer and consumer is also increased, burning up fuel: container shipping accounts for some 4% of carbon emissions. 

As consumers, we are attracted to the lower prices of these products but end up having to spend more in the long run when they breakdown or work less effectively due to the lower quality materials used in production. We now throw away products and replacing them at a rate never seen before.

Linear and Circular Product Life Cycles – PYXERA Global

The Circular Economy is a concept that aims to eliminate this waste by extending the product’s current lifecycle, minimising the number of new resources needed in production and reducing the need to constantly buy new products. 

Essentially, the aim is to eliminate waste out of the production flow and turn it into fuel for the next round of production.

Consumers can benefit by shopping with Circular Economy brands – they are actively adapting their processes to close the loop on their products’ life cycles. And it’s not only the environmentally-conscious consumer that this should appeal to, but all consumers are expected to benefit from higher quality, longer-lasting products, lower long-term costs, less concern about what to do when the product breaks down and the burden of disposal being placed on the manufacturer.

Research has suggested brands are also seeing the advantages of this environmentally friendly approach via lower raw material costs, fewer manufacturing costs, less waste and enhanced brand loyalty and awareness due to making long-lasting, better quality products whilst being conscious about the environment. Demand in the UK has been rising for more environmentally friendly options and brands have seen fit to adapt their production processes to take Circular Economy principles into consideration.

Introducing initiatives, be they big changes or small adjustments, that support the idea of the Circular Economy helps extend product life cycles and reduces waste in the manufacturing process. 

Here’s a look at six of the main strategies being employed by brands in the UK. (After all, if UK consumers buy UK made products that’s a big product miles saving to start with!)

Longevity

A key circular economy concept is longevity:  designing and developing products that last longer and are easier to repair, using higher quality materials. This is one of the simpler but highly effective adjustments a manufacturer can make to extend the product life cycle. More durable products also mean more satisfied customers, lower production costs and less waste. This concept aims to get the maximum value out of products and their component materials, with the minimum waste.

Buffalo Systems have a simple premise: design and make strong and durable clothes from quality materials – built to last as we explore the great outdoors.

Richmond Kettle Company’s craftsmen use traditional Edwardian methods to spin each one by hand giving every kettle its own characteristics, and any small blemishes created in the manufacturing processes are described as the kettle’s DNA, which makes each kettle unique.

Recycling

“Recycling is a necessary component of a Circular Economy, though this should only be considered when there are no other alternatives for re-use, remanufacture or repair. This is the basic premise of the waste hierarchy, which prioritises the most effective solutions to waste management2.” 

By now, nearly all brands have considered making either their packaging or parts of their products, easy for consumers to recycle after they’ve finished using them. However, the concept of recycling needs to be taken a step further. For example, making components during the product development stage that can be used as a raw material for making future products, thus creating a ‘designed to be reused’ loop. 

Brands have also been creative with all kinds of materials that could otherwise be considered waste, using them as a start point coupled with new technologies to produce products wholly from recycled materials. 

Jaw Brew has a zero-waste approach, making low alcohol beer from leftover bread rolls.

FFS make quality blades, which once used can be returned and used to make new blades.

Re-use and Refurbish

Designing products for re-use and refurbishment at the end of their first use can significantly reduce waste and the unnecessary cycle of constantly buying things anew. The re-use of products and materials is more beneficial than simply recycling as it retains a product’s inherent value by keeping it in use for longer. This minimises waste, creates jobs and reduces consumption and carbon footprint. 

Some brands have been adapting to offer refurbishing services that restore and refinish discarded products and materials to serve their original functions once again. Again, the ability to refurbish should be considered by brands at the design and development stage, making sure that when products become faulty or are missing components, they can easily be restored to a product that is almost or totally as good as new. Refurbishing extends a product’s life when it may otherwise be thrown away despite it having useful materials and components that are fully functioning.

Rozenbroek offers a ‘repair and recycle’ service for their clothing range. Striving to promote garment longevity and value.

Islabikes are applying circular economy thinking to children’s bike. Instead of owning a bike, rent it, return it, get the next size, and the old one is refurbished!

Remanufacturing3

Remanufacturing is a concept whereby the manufacturer works to return a used product to a “like-new” state. Remanufacturing is one of the most sustainable actions a brand can undertake within the Circular Economy framework. This is because the process recovers a substantial fraction of the materials and value-added to a product in its first manufacture, again maximising the useful life of these components. Because this process can be done at low additional cost, consumers also enjoy the benefits of obtaining “like-new” products at a reduced price. The key for a successful remanufacturing operation is to design components and use materials that, when faulty, can easily be restored and recovered at little to no cost.

Ease of Disassembly4

Description: In order to maximise the potential of the Re-use, Refurbish and Remanufacturing initiatives, Disassembly must be a factor in product design and development from the outset. This requires a radical overhaul in the design process but developing products that reduce the time and increase the ease for disassembly can significantly increase the recycling yield and purity for precious metals, critical metals and plastics. The increases in yields and purity maximise the value of all materials and components used in the first manufacture and mean new products can be easily made up of the recycled material.

Renewable Materials

Renewable materials are derived from natural resources which replenish naturally in amounts enough to replace the amount used or consumed. Using renewable materials wherever possible in the manufacturing process helps minimise carbon emissions, reduces the need for finite resources to be extracted and can make the economy more circular. 

“Even a Circular Economy needs some input of raw materials to grow and maintain material loops. Renewable materials can secure raw material supply for the long-term as they are regenerative by nature: they derive from biomass which replenishes and regrows provided it is managed responsibly.”5

The use of renewable materials increases the resilience of supply chains, securing the supply of raw materials for the future rather than continuing to use up finite materials and jeopardising future manufacturing.

GRN Sportswear make their t-shirts from 70% bamboo, 30% organic cotton.

Tabitha Eve use cotton and bamboo to produce homeware for a reduced waste lifestyle.

Overview

We take 60 billion tonnes of raw material out of the earth every year. This cannot go on – many materials, particularly the 20 most rare metals, will simply run out. It should not go on – it’s a major driver of waste, CO2 production and pollution.

And it will not go on if we all seek out brands doing the right thing – the circular economy.


References

  1. “From Global to Local”, Author Finbar Livesay, 2017.
  2. Zero Waste Scotland https://www.zerowastescotland.org.uk/circular-economy/recycling
  3. Handbook of Sustainable Engineering, Editors: Kauffman, Joanne, LEE, Kun Mo (Eds.).
  4. Ease of disassembly of products to support circular economy strategies, Authors VANEGAS Paul, PEETERS Jef, CATTRYSSE Dirk, TECCHIO Paolo, ARDENTE Fulvio, MATHIEUX Fabrice, DEWULF Wim, DUFLOU Joost, 2018.
  5. Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2018.

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