The way our pattern of consumption currently works is take a resource, make something out of it and dispose of it at the end of its life cycle.There are obvious problems with this linear approach; firstly we will end up running out of resources and secondly it creates an inordinate amount of waste. The so-called circular economy (CE) is a different approach which could transform the use of resources because waste would become a valuable input to another process – and products could be repaired, reused or upgraded instead of thrown away. If a product does eventually need to be thrown away, it can be taken apart and the raw materials used again.That way there is no waste and we don’t run out of resources.Though recycling is the latest green buzzword, particularly in schools, mending and re-using is much more efficient.
The Green Alliance and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation are promoting the idea of the Circular Economy as a radical change to the way we run society and have tried to persuade consumers that leasing washing machines may be the best solution to saving the world’s resources. Washing machines made for industrial purposes such as those found in launderettes can last over forty years with obviously heavy usage. Built-in obsolescence ensure that most domestic machines are lucky to last five years.Few people could afford to buy the elite machines so it would make sense to rent them, they would be designed to be economical with energy and water and it would be in the makers’ interest to maximise longevity to minimise service bills.Currently manufacturers and retailers have no interest in the life span of the goods they sell beyond the warranty period. We are all used to throwing away CD players, TVs, fridges, irons, DVD players, MP3 players and simply going to the shop and replacing them. But what else are we supposed to do? Who would fix them? Nobody seems to have the skills to fix them now. And it would undoubtedly cost more to fix than to buy a new one. And we have become so accustomed to this way of buying and owning our stuff it somehow seems inferior to rent.
I am old enough to remember when Radio Rentals shops existed in most large towns.For a small monthly sum householders could rent electric domestic appliances.At its peak, Radio Rentals claimed it had more than 2 million customers, over 500 shops and employed 3600 technicians, 2700 skilled installers plus a large ancillary staff. They had sales and service locations across the UK, but not any more. Culturally, especially in the UK, owning is considered superior to renting, a fact which has led to the demise of the likes of Radio Rentals.So to make the Circular Economy work would take a massive shift in the designing of products as well as a complete change in the attitudes of consumers. Dame Ellen MacArthur and her Foundation are high profile campaigners for the Circular Economy. As she said in an interview, it is “a very different way for society and the economy to function, whereby you try to recycle materials and try to close a loop. You do that through moving towards a performance economy rather than a consumer economy. So rather than buying a vehicle you would pay for the use of one. This would guarantee that the vehicle would go back and be taken apart.” It makes perfect sense but I wonder if we are forward-thinking enough to make it work here.