thinking and campaigning

Article archive: 2012 – The Great Recovery


In 2011 I joined a UK government mission to Holland to study the Dutch strategies to ‘design out landfill’. The Dutch introduced a ban on landfill in 1995 and are now pioneering new strategies in resource efficiency. Our visit took us to facilities that sorted, recovered, and managed resource (or waste as we were still defining it in the UK). One of these facilities recycled fridges and freezers. I was struck by the diverse variety of models being processed. Every single appliance was different. This meant that every time a disassembler tried manually to get the valuable compressor out from the back of a fridge before it was crushed they were faced with a different set of challenges; different size and types of screws, fittings and frames blocking the way. It made me think that if a fridge designer could stand next to these guys and see with their own eyes the problems inherent in the design and maybe even have a go at disassembling we would have better fridges and better designers.

Waste affects every part of our society. Businesses, government, local authorities, and members of the public all play a part in the creation, management and disposal of waste. A staggering 98% of the resources that flow into the economy end up as waste within only six months.[1] The UK produces approximately 290 million tons of waste a year. Whilst there has been significant improvement in the UK’s recycling rates in the past decade we are still losing valuable streams of resource into landfill.[2]

The problem is exacerbated by the so called ‘ecological rucksack’[i] of materials used to make a product. Innocuous objects like plastic toothbrushes are heavier than you think with over 1.5kg of material used in production[3]. Even a simple A4 piece of white paper uses 10 litres of water in its production. Current levels of raw material usage in the UK manufacturing industry have been deemed unsustainable by government and businesses.[4] Like many developed countries, the UK economy is highly dependent on several “at risk” materials and resource security is a growing concern. The problem is particularly acute for certain key elements where demand far exceeds current sustainable supply levels.

As a society we seem to have very little idea or desire to find out what goes in to make the stuff that we so happily consume. Take our love for the mobile phone. In 2011 there were 5 billion mobile phone subscriptions globally (this was when the world’s population was 6.8 billion). There were 80 million mobile phone subscriptions in the UK and every hour 1000 mobile phone replacements were sold. At the same time an estimated 80 million working mobiles were retained in UK households, lost in drawers and cupboards.[5] Each phone is made of approx 40 different elements including Copper in the wiring, Indium in the touch screen and Gold in the circuit boards. These elements are becoming increasingly viable to recover as the price of metals and minerals increase. There is more gold in a ton of mobile phones (approx. 300g) than there is in a ton of mined rock from a gold mine (approx. 1- 5g)[6] and it is far easier to extract from the phones. However more elements could be extracted if they were designed to facilitate material recovery.

This resource challenge presents a significant opportunity for UK businesses. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimate the material cost savings to the EU could be a minimum of £220 billion p.a. if we moved towards a scenario where all products were designed to aid resource recovery alongside systems that eliminated waste streams, in turn creating cyclical systems. This model of a circular economy is a shift from the old ‘take, make, waste’ linear business model to one of ‘lease the resource, make the product, recover the resource then re-make’.

The UK is well placed to develop closed loop[ii] techniques with its expertise on design, innovation and manufacturing. European Commissioner for the Environment, Janez Potocnik writes that, ‘as well as reducing material costs and exposure to volatile resource prices, the circular economy would ‘spur positive secondary effects such as a wave of innovations and employment in growth sectors of the economy, whilst increasing Europe’s competitiveness in the global marketplace’ and that ‘many business leaders believe the innovation challenge of the century will be to foster prosperity in a world of finite resources’.[7]

Research from the EU, UK Government, Green Alliance, CBI and EMF all press the need for new approaches to design in response to the problems caused by linear manufacturing processes. The Green Alliance also notes that although multiple policies and regulations are focused on products’ end of life, hardly any encourage design for end of life or even restoration.[8]

Design sits at the heart of the challenge to create a circular economy. The House of Commons Science and Technology committee concluded: ‘intelligent product design is key to [the circular economy’s] effective implementation’.[9] Approx. 80% of a product’s environmental impact is ‘locked-in’ at the design stage.[10] Understanding your production cycles and reconfiguring them for optimum effectiveness is key. One cannot simply just substitute one material for another without understanding the consequences.

Designing like this is complex. Gone are the days of ‘sustainable or eco’ design where a simple change of material to a recycled alternative would give serious brownie points. This system calls for investigation in materials at a molecular scale. It demands true co-creation with everyone involved in the life cycle of that product and requires collaborative systematic thinking, helpful chemists and new types of logistics to capture and recirculate materials.

The challenge posed by the circular economy needs to be lead by business. It is very rare to see a company setting a design brief that includes requirements to recover material. But the business model is changing and the economic imperative to recover is looking more appealing.

The Great Recovery.

Developing a new circular model has the potential to change everything we do. We are launching a programme called The Great Recovery. This programme, run in partnership with the Technology Strategy Board and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation with support from industrial players will address the knowledge and innovation gaps around designing for a circular economy model.

The programme will start by building a community of designers, connect them to networks of scientists, business leaders, academics, manufacturers and material recyclers.

The programme will provide a significant number of practical demonstration projects, many of which will be hosted at recovery centres to discover how ‘problem products’ could be better designed from a closed loop perspective. Over the course of this project, data will be collected, amassing a large and unique body of knowledge to help identify opportunities and challenges on which new industrial education progammes can be developed to build understanding.

Future phases will take lessons learnt into businesses, government, education and ultimately consumers so that we ensure everyone that has a role or influence in the lifecycle of a product understands how they can play their part to redesign the future.

[1] Designing Out Landfill. A UK Mission to Holland 17.1.11 – 20.1.11 Materials and the Environmental Sustainability Knowledge Transfer Networks and Technology Strategy Board.

[2] Designing Out Landfill. A UK Mission to Holland 17.1.11 – 20.1.11 Materials and the Environmental Sustainability Knowledge Transfer Networks and Technology Strategy Board.

[3] Mike Pitts, RSC Policy Lecture, 2010

[4] Government Review of Waste Policy in England, 2011, DEFRA

[5] Hywel Jones, Hallam University, Sheffield.

[6] Mike Pitts, RSC Policy Lecture, 2010

[7] Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2012, Towards a Circular Economy,

[8] Green Alliance, 2011, Reinventing the wheel: a circular economy for resource security,

[10] Design Council and AT&T, 1995 see also 2001 Helen Lewis, John Gertsakis, Design + Environment: A Global Guide to Designing Greener Goods,

[i] An Ecological Rucksack is the total quantity (in kg) of materials moved from nature to create a product or service, minus the actual weight of the product. That is, ecological rucksacks look at hidden material flows.

Ecological rucksacks measure the amount of materials not directly used in the product, but displaced because of the product. That is, ecological rucksacks represent the materials necessary for production, use, recycling and disposal of a product, but not the materials used in the product. Ecological rucksacks are calculated by subtracting the weight of the product from the material intensity (MI) of the product or service:

ER = W – MI

where ER is the ecological rucksack, W is the weight of the product and MI is the material intensity.

[ii] The term ‘circular economy’ covers a number of different ideas and beliefs, from ‘the closed loop’, ‘cradle to cradle’ or ‘design to disassemble’. It is the system that allows the continuous circulation of materials through the economy with minimum loss of quality or value (often known as ‘restorative’ or ‘regenerative’ as well as keeping the technical and biological cycles separate.  This is in contract to the current dominant linear model of ‘take, make, waste’.

This article appeared in the RSA Journal in Summer 2012.

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