Article archive: 2013 – What Comes Around Goes Around

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There is nothing more sobering than standing at the foot of a very steep mountain, particularly if that mountain is an enormous pile of waste electronics. At the bottom of the mountain stand a group of designers, chemists, entrepreneurs, manufacturers and technologists, all looking up in awe at the monstrous pile of objects. Coloured plastic casings, twisted cables, keyboards with missing on/off buttons catch the eye. An assortment of appliances including vacuum cleaners, hair straighteners, toasters and kettles are still recognisable, but mostly it’s a tangled mess of metal and plastic.

This pile of electronic waste, known as e-waste, is just a small sectin of the waste discarded on a daily basis by UK households. Between now and 2020 the UK will create an estimated 12 million tonnes of e-waste which will contain a lot of precious metals that if valued at current market prices are estimated to be worth in the region of £7billion.[1]

When we try to dispose of objects that we no longer want or need it is all too easy to take the route to landfill; this is the route of least resistance in our current industrial/ consumer model. Confusing advice and information comes in spades; from the non-compulsory legislation surrounding the WEEE directive[2]; to the different and confusing collection systems that each of our 326 local authorities, 36 metropolitan boroughs and 32 London boroughs have set up; to the built-in obsolescence that is part of the design for so many of those appliances; to the appliances which are deliberately designed so that they can’t be fixed and will break (or lose their warranty) if you try.

All these obstacles induce mild panic and frustration in the user and result in things either going in the wrong recycling bin or being dumped by a roadside often under the cover of dark, or being stuffed in the back of a cupboards until a solution is found, or at worst thrown in a black bin liner and put out for landfill collection. Of the 600 million tonnes of products and material that enter the UK, WRAP estimate only 115 million tonnes find their way to a waste recycling plant.

The broken stuff in front of us has had its fate determined. Deemed unfit, broken (our host at the recovery centre suggested that over half of the e-waste flowing into their processing plant could have been fixed by the user if they knew how) or just superseded by the newer, shinier model, it now forms part of the mountain. The mountain represents the small percentage of e-waste that found its way into a recovery programme. It has somehow traversed the overcomplicated journey from house to local authority recycling depot and on to its final resting place here where it is about to be shoved into an industrial crusher before being hand and machine sorted then transported out of the UK to a part of the world where someone earns a living melting, recovering and sell the valuable resources back into the production process.

From where the group stand it seems we also have an enormous capacity to consume goods which have short lives and seemingly little necessity – the electronic doughnut maker and mini pink candy floss machine before us being cases in point. Staggeringly over 90% of the material and products we consume are in our waste stream within six months[3]. But the Great Recovery team are not here to judge people’s taste or consumption patterns. Since September groups of designers together with material experts, local authority members, business leaders, manufacturers and entrepreneurs to name a few have been visiting facilities like this one.

The Great Recovery programme, run by the RSA design team with support from the Technology Strategy Board, has embarked on an investigation into how to design for a resource efficient and secure future. This means designing everything from an electrical appliance to a piece of packaging so that the valuable materials (resource) in those products can be efficiently recovered and fed back into industry once those products have reached the end of their useful life. This ‘circular economy’ is an exciting proposition. It focuses on understanding how we can redesign the 600 million tonnes of product we consume each year in the UK so that the materials can be captured with minimum effort and reused. Our focus is on developing an understanding about material flows, in which products are part of the material flow cycle, existing in a transitory state in which they borrow materials for a short period of time before releasing them back into the cycle at the end of their life.

We do not currently design or manufacture like this. This becomes obvious when you take these objects apart and try to split the ingredients. Toothbrushes, disposable coffee cups, books, TVs, houses; all designed and manufactured with lists of materials that are moulded and fused together by machines for efficient production, but making them impossible to disassemble so that materials can be recovered.

We have run a number of workshops in sites ranging from a packaging recycling plant, to textile sorting centres, to an engine remanufacturing factory, an electronic waste recovery facility and a disused tin mine in Cornwall. The tin mine was fascinating as it had come to the end of its commercial life but with tin prices and secondary elements like Indium rising fast, it is becoming commercially viable again.

We chose the mine and waste processing plants to give the designers who have signed up to the Great Recovery an understanding of where the materials they use and the products they create come from and end up. Up to now we have focussed on the end-of-life of everyday objects and the lesson learned from processing sites that are trying to break down, separate and recover materials. We have been left with a sense of ‘Fear, Farce and Challenge’.

1. The Fear is a reaction many of the designers have expressed when they are asked to ‘look, at the product they spent months designing, was launched to much fanfare a year ago and now sits in that mountain of rubbish’.

Waste is a design flaw. Current design process only takes us to the point where the consumer picks it from the shelf and takes it to the cashier. We rarely consider what happens post-consumer and when we do our knowledge is out of date and often incorrect. Designers hide behind the brief saying they have no power, they only deliver a service – so brief writers were invited to the workshops too.

2. The Farce is the growing realisation that in order to make these appliances we had to source all these raw materials (including some from war torn areas, or perhaps extracted using slave labour), invest in numerous production processes around the world and ship them from continent to continent incurring many ship and air miles’.

A new laptop can cost you under £300 but if you track the flow of raw materials from the mines to the factories and distribution centres (often starting their life in war torn Democratic Republic of Congo, the average computer travels the equivalent of three or four times around the world before they end up in the hands of the customer. Designers have to work with the global market system and it would be naïve to think otherwise but understanding material flows and designing to circular economy principles would result in more local and less carbon intensive production. Traceable supply chains designed around transparency can enhance resource security and support the corporate social responsibility objectives many large manufacturing businesses have adopted.

3. The Challenge is to re-think the design of our products from first principles. Pull an item off the waste mountain and take it apart. Understand what is in the product, where the materials came from and why they are there?

Most objects disassembled at the Great Recovery workshops were not generally made to be taken apart. Take LCD TVs that have hazardous light tubes full of mercurial vapour, which are taken out by hand before they can be put through the crusher. Some models have over 250 screws requiring 15 different screwdrivers to undo them before you can extract anything.

The process of deconstructing an object (also known as ‘tear-down’) in order to understand how it has been put together and how it can be improved is a well-established design tool. Many Japanese electronics companies train new designers on the recycling floor before they were allowed to enter the design studio. Many designers talk about their misspent youth tearing apart anything they could lay their hands on with nostalgia and joy. It engages the practical maker/creative part of the brain and even the hardiest consultants and heads of finance attending the workshops had glints in their eyes when handed a pair of safety specs and a hammer.

This newly re-set vision allows you to see things in a different way: a piece of packaging becomes a series of heat treated non-compatible material layers that can’t be separated; a disposable electrical toothbrush becomes an electrical appliance with a 4 month life designed with multi-moulded unrecyclable plastic, a long life battery and almost as many elements as a mobile phone.

The most important shift is the move away from design as a single object based activity to a step-by-step system consideration that designs in flow. How do we get material back into the economy, what information is needed to follow that material so that it is passed to its next user and how can we re-design production systems to enable this to happen?

Resource scarcity feels like a problem that should be solved by technology or sorted by government. The reality is that this challenge is so big and complex everyone must pick up the gloves. When approx. 80% of the environmental impact is locked in at the concept design stage[4] the reason why we bring a group of designers to face this mountain is clear.

Six months in and The Great Recovery program has begun in earnest. But the challenge is to rethink the whole consumer model and we are still only at the foothills of this journey. Our current best practice for recycling e-waste is to sort, crush and melt. Of the 40 odd elements in the ingredients list for each of these appliances even the best recovery facilities in the EU can only recover 16 at best and none of those materials are on the critical list.[5] A designer may come up with the best design for disassembly but with our current infrastructure there is still a very high chance it will end up on the e-mountain. The answer must lie in the re-design of the whole consumer system around circular principles and the prize is great.


[1] http://www.wrap.org.uk

[2] The WEEE Directive (2003) set collection, recycling and recovery targets for all types of electrical goods in the EU.

[3] WEF

[4] Design Council

[5] http://www.bgs.ac.uk/mineralsuk/statistics/riskList.html

This blog was featured on the Guardian Sustainable Business Blog, April 2013.

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