The circular economy

Never mind China, why are you hoarding scarce raw materials? Why am I? I'm not talking about the lean industrial machines that you all, hopefully, operate within; I'm talking about the consumer which is, of course, all of us.

A recent free workshop set up by the RSA and TSB brought home how much we hoard and the amount of potentially valuable material that ends up in landfill. On average every UK household has at least two old mobile phones just sitting there, not to mention laptops, CD players and other old electrical products.

This modern phenomenon has resulted in an increasingly scarce system being asked to supply increasingly more. And this wastefulness is often designed in to products. An example is the disposable electric toothbrush, designed for the bin, yet uses Tungsten for its motor head element. Tungsten is on the EU list of critical raw materials and subject to a high risk of supply interruption. Why is it used for a product essentially destined for landfill?

The organisers claimed that 90% of things we buy end up in landfill within six months, and the practical implementation of the current WEEE directive is neither working or effective. It was a fascinating and engaging insight in to materials policy and the supply chain, which led to many interesting discussions. The overall aim is to promote what is being called 'The Great Recovery' and the philosophy of a circular economy.

During the workshop we took apart various electrical gadgets to identify the materials. However, the level of component integration made the recovery of any of them almost impossible. To find out exactly what was in our gadgets we ground up the 'waste' and used X-ray spectroscopy to see just what was in there. In total about 40 to 50 elements for a mobile phone, which is about typical.

Why are we getting raw materials from sensitive and volatile supply chains from across the world when we have a potentially massive domestic supply that can be recovered, but is not being so?

Designers and engineers play a pivotal, and often unsung, role in the practicality of how a society operates. Designing for material recovery needs to be more than an idea. It needs to become the norm.

Justin Cunningham

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"...90% of things we buy end up in landfill within six months, and the practical implementation of the current WEEE directive is neither working or effective." So, when was the last time you saw an announcement or advert from the Government telling those consumers that they should not be putting their WEEE in their bins? I think the manufacturers are doing what they can and should - but if the consumer does not know what to do with their WEEE, how can it all be reclaimed? My family only know because I have told them, because my job involves knowing about WEEE for my company. This system will only work if ALL aspects of the chain are aware of their responsibilities - at the moment it has a gaping hole.

Comment Wendy Jane Bourne, 19/03/2013

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