Festival of Circular Economy 2023 speaker Amy Peace, Innovation Lead – Circular Economy at Innovate UK, asks how we can inspire behaviour changes to encourage greater reuse and repair.
Those working in the circular economy will be used to preaching the message that it’s not all about recycling – the eternal mantra that we have to push to the tighter loops.
The holy grail for resources, top of the hierarchy, is to not need the product at all – the refuse level – but with the presumption that this doesn’t work for all of society’s needs, we need to spend a bit more time looking at the middle layer of “Re’s”: reuse, repair, refurbish, remanufacture.
These are not new concepts; if anything, they come around in waves like fashion trends, but they have a bad habit of not sticking, or failing to make an impact in some sectors. Is innovation the key to making the breakthrough here, or is it what’s getting in the way?
Those working in the circular economy will be used to preaching the message that it’s not all about recycling.
At UKRI Innovate UK, we support business-led innovation. Many will be familiar with the grants and loans on offer for research and development, but we also support activities to develop collective ideas and innovation needs in thematic areas.
Part of Innovate UK’s Resource Efficiency for Materials and Manufacturing, REforMM, programme is the delivery of “sprints”. These sprints aim to build a community of engaged people around a particular topic to debate barriers and challenges, and identify key opportunities. For those interested in my “Middle Loops” opener, we have just launched the Longer in Use and ReUse Sprint (LURU).
With longer in use and reuse in mind, back to the question of what is getting in the way of the mass-adoption of these middle loops, and the provocation that innovation may be getting in the way.
Having spent many years in industry before going to the “other side”, I’ve often taken pride in my focus on simple pragmatism – you can have the best theoretical idea in the world, but if it doesn’t meet the needs of everyone who has to say yes, it doesn’t get adopted and it’s not going to have an impact. Are the people who need to say yes not able to see the benefits of these business models or does it need everyone to say yes at the same time for it actually to work?
The fact that we used to do a lot of these activities like reuse and repair more in the past adds an extra layer of intrigue – it’s not like we’re asking people to imagine a brave new future world, never seen before.
Surely innovation is only helping us to move to a resource-efficient future? But let’s consider where some of these innovations could be creating new barriers to more circular good practices:
- Technological advancements: Advances in computer hardware and software allow us to do many things quicker, better, and flashier. These advances mean our technology soon becomes obsolete or is so complex that only specialists can repair it.
- The amount of materials: New materials can be customised to optimise the performance of a product. The thousands of grades of metals alone make it more difficult to tell what something is made of and ensure it can have a high-value second life.
- The scale of data: Digitalisation means that we can have composition data attached to products. The bigger the data set, and particularly with the rapid flooding of the internet with AI-generated information, the harder it can be to tell what relevant and accurate data for products and materials is.
- Convenience: Manufacturing efficiency improvements allow us to make more things, faster and cheaper. Cheap replacement products take away the consumer’s incentive to repair what they’ve got.
Consequently, I’ve been encouraged that organisations have embraced our ask that projects look at things like behaviour change, not just technology push; better data, not just bigger data; solutions to optimise systems, not just the primary use-phase of a project. In the UKRI National Interdisciplinary Circular Economy Research programme, NICER, funded projects have helped provide several interesting insights into these challenges and trade-offs:
In one such project, Twist developed an online platform to help Original Equipment Manufacturers gather and analyse data on the individual components within their products in the active use phases. This data helps companies assess performance under different conditions, such as varying weather, and make more informed decisions about how to improve the longevity of the products.
Impressively, they were even able to incorporate live lifecycle analysis data into their tools, getting real-time carbon data on the charging of e-bikes and scooters.
We’re making some progress on addressing the barriers to longer in use and reuse.
In another NICER project, Tech-Takeback led work to develop a decision-tree methodology to help volunteer staff assess whether donated household electricals should be repaired or disassembled for recycling.
Of note, there was not always a linear trend for older products becoming less worth repairing – “retro” electronics go through their own fashion cycles of desirability and laptops that might have been deemed underpowered for modern operating systems could be given reasonable functionality through installing the lightweight Chrome Operating System.
We’re making some progress on addressing the barriers to longer in use and reuse, but in the spirit of gaining collective therapy for my “mid-loop crisis”, these are some of the remaining questions we’re hoping to tackle over the coming months:
- Should we have a centralised materials exchange system rather than multiple different online platforms?
- Where do material hubs fit into the system? Do these work best on a local authority scale, or do some products need national material hubs?
- Which sectors warrant peer-to-peer product exchanges? Which sectors warrant their exchange systems, or where should we be encouraging cross-sector materials exchange?
- Should second-life products and materials get sold in dedicated “sustainable” choice places, where customers have already made the choice to go down this route, or should we ensure they’re visible in the places where customers look for new products, to shift their behaviour towards reuse?
- If we put reuse products next to new, could this backfire and persuade some people to switch to new, because of new features and special offers?
- Which products work best to remanufacture via OEMs (original equipment manufacturer) in the UK, versus which need third-party specialists, or a more decentralised approach?
If you want to be part of the conversation about where we need to go in the UK in this space, consider joining our network of interested businesses and other stakeholders to help push thinking towards keeping products longer in use and encouraging more reuse.
More details about how to join this “sprint” can be found here: Longer in Use and ReUse (LURU) (ktn-uk.org).
You can hear Amy speaking at the Festival of Circular Economy on the Designing for a Better Tomorrow panel. Moderated by Mark Shayler, panellists will explore how innovators are tackling the circularity of each step in the design process.