An alternative to the disposable economy

Production

Published Dec 02, 2014

Continued economic growth requires an alarming – and arguably unsustainable – amount of raw material and energy. But what if there was a way to rein in production, without slowing down the economy?

The disposable society could be said to have begun in the 1920s with the Phoebus cartel, an agreement among the major lighting manufacturers to set artificial limits on the lifespan of light bulbs. By the 1970s the cycle of consumerism was in full swing.       

Planned obsolescence drives consumerism – a model that begins with extraction of resources by the manufacturer, and ends with the disposal of the worn-out or unwanted product by the consumer.

But, as an abundance of evidence shows, consumerism as we know it today is unsustainable. One way to address the problem is to close the manufacturing loop. Amir Rashid, a researcher at KTH Royal Institute of Technology, is leading an EU project that is working with manufacturers to do just that.

An associate professor in the Department of Production Engineering, Rashid believes that the future of the economy is circular – as in a cycle.

“To continue our economy with products manufactured from new materials is not a permanent solution,” he says.

The idea of a circular economy is to design products so that they can be reused and recycled, and thus be part of a technical or biological cycle, he says. And by using new business models that aim to sell services rather than products, producers can gain control of the worn-out items and reuse parts of them.

“Our economy will continue to prosper, but it will not be dependent on a constant supply of new raw materials,” he says.

Rashid and his colleagues are working within the framework of the EU research project ResCoM, which aims to help manufacturing companies shift from a linear to a circular model where products are re-used, re-manufactured and recycled.

The project is preparing business strategies and design methods that will help manufacturers to change their production systems, he says. “We are also developing software for lifecycle management that ties together various design and manufacturing systems for the manufacturer. This will provide guidance to companies and demonstrate the benefits of the production cycle.”

Participating in the project are four major manufacturing companies in a variety of business areas – major appliances, consumer electronics, automotive products and children’s push chairs. These will subsequently serve as models for other manufacturers.

The key elements of a circular economy are reuse, remanufacturing, recycling, conserving materials and saving energy.

Emphasis is placed on quality, durability and versatility.

Strollers for example could be equipped with a handgrip that switches it from a sleeping to sitting position, or from a single to a double capacity pram, Rashid says. They can also be designed to accommodate children of different ages. Thus, a family would no longer have to purchase more than one stroller.

But it isn’t only the consumer who stands to gain from such versatility. By switching to a service business model, a manufacturer no longer is dependent on selling multiple versions of a stroller to a single family.

“And when you no longer need it, the company can reuse the stroller and its value through hiring it out again.

“By upgrading and renovating the stroller, the company creates new business value even though fewer strollers are produced,” he says. “This uses less energy and materials and creates less waste.”

Another example could be a carpet manufacturer that has a return program through which the company takes back old used carpet, separates the yarn and sends it back to the supplier for recycling.

“The carpet base can be sold for use in road paving or roofing, and the parts that cannot be recycled can be used as fuel,” he says.

Rashid says that a circular economy would produce fewer products, while serving more people. Replacing the ownership of products with paid access to services not only creates new jobs in the service sector, it will also create a large number of jobs in many different types of remanufacturing and recycling industries, he says.

“As the world population grows, production and the need for raw materials will increase,” he says. “To meet this challenge successfully, we need to create manufacturing systems that are similar to the re-creation cycle system that exists in nature.

“In this way we can ensure economic prosperity for our planet as well as for the world's population, which means that there will also be resources available for future generations.”

Peter Larsson

ResCoM, Resource Conservative Manufacturing, is a four-year EU project on sustainable manufacturing. The project is led and coordinated by Amir Rashid and his research associates.

For more information, contact Amir Rashid at +46 8 - 790 63 73 or amir.rashid @ iip.kth.se.

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