The Great Recovery: closing the gap between materials and design

28th April, 2014 by Duncan Jefferies

An initiative connecting designers with networks of scientists, business leaders, academics, manufacturers and materials recyclers aims to speed the shift to a circular economy. Duncan Jefferies investigates.

Around 600 million tonnes of products are consumed in the UK each year, and only 115 million tonnes are recycled, according to WRAP. Statistics like this illustrate just how dysfunctional our linear economy – based on a ‘make, use, dispose’ model – has become, and why it’s imperative we replace it with a circular model that recognises the true value of the materials within our products.

A report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates that the EU alone could save at least £220 billion a year by making the switch, which would also help to address resource shortages, meet predicted increases in global consumption and reduce the world’s CO2 emissions. But getting to this point won’t be easy. It requires fresh thinking from businesses, designers, manufacturers, consumers and end-of-life specialists: a new mindset that places long-term services above highly disposable products.

Around 80% of a product’s environmental impact is locked in at the design stage. This puts designers in the hot seat when it comes to improving the way materials are used. But designers are often beholden to briefs that don’t allow for creative thinking on material usage. Even when a brief does allow for this, the communication channels that might help a designer to understand the impact of their material decisions down the chain are often lacking.

Similar problems exist at the opposite end of the spectrum, says Rob Maslin, Director of We All Design. “A lot of waste management and asset management people are throwing away machines and key materials without actually knowing the value of those components. And that knowledge gap is down to communication, basically.”

The Great Recovery aims to close this gap by allowing designers to connect with networks of scientists, business leaders, academics, manufacturers and materials recyclers. Launched by the Royal Society of Arts (RSA), in partnership with the Technology Strategy Board, the initiative has seen a series of workshop projects held at recovery centres, with the aim of discovering how ‘problem products’ could be better designed.

“One of the things that we hold very true is that the best innovation comes in the intersection between disciplines; when people are encouraged to look differently at a problem from somebody else’s perspective”, says Mike Pitts, Lead Specialist, Sustainability at the Technology Strategy Board.

The workshops are based around a concept of “the fear, the farce and the challenge”, says Sophie Thomas, Co-director of Design at the RSA. Firstly, the fear: designers see how quickly their lovingly researched products end up on the scrap heap. Secondly, the farce: they understand how absurd the current linear model is, one where piles of raw materials are sourced in unethical ways, products are assembled halfway round the world, and shipped from continent to continent before reaching the consumer. And lastly, the challenge: how can they help to improve the situation?

This last point is expanded upon during a series of ‘break-down’ events, when items from the waste mountain are taken apart to expose their flawed design. For example, some LCD TVs contain over 250 screws and require 15 different screwdrivers to dismantle. Or take the example of a spray bottle: a small spring in its trigger can disrupt the plastic recycling process.

Designing for circularity isn’t purely focused on disassembly of course. Longevity, leasing, serving and reuse are equally important concepts for designers to understand, says Pitts. “It’s not just about recycled materials. It’s the fact that we can do all sorts of things inside the loop: making things more repairable, making things re-manufacturable.”

While the first phase of the Great Recovery was about problem definition, the second phase will focus more on problem-solving. For example, Pitts says they intend to ‘flip’ the model established in the first phase and bring end-of-life people into the design arena. A new UK innovation hub will also help to continue the conversations that different stakeholders have now begun.

The Technology Strategy Board has also invested £1.25 million to 35 cross-disciplinary teams to carry out feasibility studies across a wide range of products and processes, and developed an online resource that focuses on design for circularity. Meanwhile, the RSA, in partnership with the Comino Foundation, ran a Future Maker event in June 2013, which celebrated the maker movement and its potential in terms of the circular economy. The strength of this event, according to Thomas, is that it brought together “people from all different ages [and backgrounds], so you had the fashion people, and you also had entrepreneurs, school students – all talking about things, and each learning from one another”.

When it comes to the youngest generation of creative people, the great thing, she says, is that “you don’t have to teach them about sustainability because they’ve grown up with it, they get it, they get social impacts. So actually it’s more about how to utilise that.”

It’s a point that Alison Tickell, Chief Executive of Julie’s Bicycle, echoes. Her organisation aims to make sustainability intrinsic to the business, art and ethics of the creative industries. A recent series of conversations and events on environmental challenges, under the banner Sustaining Creativity, has explored the drivers for change in the creative industries, as well as opportunities for fresh thinking.

Artists and other creatives make a valuable contribution to the debate on material use and sustainability, she says: “They can make things desirable as well as plunging into the philosophical and spiritual realms. Plays, concerts and festivals, as well as streaming or downloading, use materials in just the same way as any other economy. We are looking at how the principles of circularity can be applied across the cultural sector, to see if artists and organisations can collaborate to build a new creative economy.”

SustainRCA, a Royal College of Art initiative that aims to inspire, encourage and support students to embrace sustainability in their work, has a similar logic at its core. Students are encouraged to produce innovative solutions to sustainability challenges, often by using recycling materials. At last year’s annual Sustain Show & Awards, which honours some of the best graduate work, visitors saw how students had transformed found materials into jewellery, and loofah bath sponges into low-cost splints or biodegradable packaging.

For an example of the circular economy in practice, artists, designers, businesses and others need look no further than Japan, where individual producer responsibility and a system built on the assumption of collaboration has resulted in a very high recycling rate (98% for metals, for example). Because manufacturers co-own the recovery infrastructure, and keep the proceeds of their recovery, it makes financial sense for them to recover them. Hopefully, with support from some of the initiatives outlined above, the rest of the world will soon catch up.

CCE closes the loop

Coca-Cola Enterprises (CCE), in collaboration with plastics recycler ECO Plastics, has dramatically changed the way it sources plastic for its bottles over the last 18 months. A £15m joint venture between the two companies came about after CCE identified shortages in bottle-grade recycled polyethylene terephthalate (rPET) pellets. The result is one of the world’s largest and most sophisticated recycling facilities, Continuum Recycling in Hemswell.

CCE also guaranteed to buy the plastic produced by Continuum Recycling for 10 years – the type of long-term collaboration on which the circular economy depends. The facility, which officially opened in May 2012, is capable of processing 150,000 tonnes of mixed plastics a year, and producing 40,000 tonnes of rPET pellets. It can turn plastic from used drinks bottles into new bottles for Coca-Cola within as little as six weeks.

CCE and ECO Plastics claim the plant saves around 33,500 tonnes of CO2 per year, the equivalent of taking over 15,715 cars off the road. Major UK recyclers like Viridor have also agreed to supply thousands of tonnes of plastic to the facility throughout 2014, helping to close the loop in soft drinks packaging. “It shows how leaders in the waste management industry are evolving to grasp the opportunities offered in a more circular economy and will act as reassurance to householders and local authorities that the domestic recycling industry is thriving”, says Nick Brown, Associate Director for Recycling at CCE.

He emphasises that CCE is already one of the biggest users of recycled materials for its plastic bottles and cans. “We generally have a big interest in making sure that the material we put out on the market is optimised so that it’s as sustainable as possible. We’re not using any more than we need to, and we have a real interest in making sure that what comes back through the recycling chains is maximised for reuse.”

Duncan Jefferies is Assistant Editor, Green Futures, and a freelance writer specialising in technology and innovation.

To learn about The Great Recovery, and be part of it, contact Sophie Thomas at The Great Recovery.

Photo credit: Tanvi Kant; daizuoxin/iStock/Thinkstock by Getty Images

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