Putting sustainability at the heart of UK design

7th November 2017
Posted By : Anna Flockett
Putting sustainability at the heart of UK design

Did you know that 99% of the materials we use to make the things we buy are thrown away within six months? Over the last 60 years we have done away with the values of thrift and re-use that our grandparents lived by and designed ourselves a linear economy where we take things from the ground, ship it to where we want it to be, sell it and then bin it.

Guest piece written by Terry O’Reilly, Manager, NT CADCAM.

That’s 99% of everything we buy – trashed. It includes the waste created in the extraction, manufacturing, transportation and selling of the stuff. It also means that at every stage of the product lifecycle an awful lot of plastic is going to landfill and – worse – into the natural environment.

In the UK, about one million tonnes of plastic that could be recycled is still being sent to landfill when it could be re-used. It’s a waste of resources and energy, not to mention the impact that plastic is having on the natural environment, in particular on marine life. Marine plastic pollution has impacted a staggering 267 species worldwide.

But modern life without plastic would be unthinkable. As a design material it’s fantastic, versatile, light, low cost and durable. Many of the mainstream polymer plastics can all be collected and reused. But high impact materials such as polypropylene (tubs and toys), polystyrene (plastic cutlery), and C-pet (black microwave trays) aren’t being collected by many local authorities.

If we carry on as we are, we’ll soon be mining landfill to recover these resources we’re so bountifully throwing away. At the moment, we’ve got EU legislation to slow down this waste. Directives such as the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive, Clean Vehicles Directive and EU Packaging regulations, which are bringing all member states to commit to recycling 65 per cent of our rubbish by 2030. Right now, the UK is at about 44%.

What happens when we leave Europe? Will EU legislation and these targets be repealed in a misguided quest to boost UK industry and commerce without a thought for ecology?  What will be the big driver to incentivise British businesses to close the loop of product lifecycles and encourage greater design recycling and re-use?

Did the UK vote for Brexit thinking that all the environmental legislation from the EU was just noise and red tape rather than a conscious effort to make the world a better place? As many forward-thinking companies are finding out, if you are clever with how you design your products and create a circular businesses model, then going green can be good for your profit and loss sheet too.

A three-year project to research more efficient business models with companies including Samsung, SKY, DHL and Panasonic found a circular economy could bring more than £5million in financial benefits and savings in the region of 63,500 tonnes of virgin material.  

One of the single biggest drivers of changing behaviour for re-use has been the Landfill Tax. 

Introduced in 1996, it was the UK’s first ever tax with an explicit environmental purpose where there was a charge per tonne on ‘active waste’ (such as plastic packaging) and a lower rate on ‘inactive waste’ (such as builders’ rubble). But it is not without controversy.

As landfill rates stagnate, Mark Shayler, Eco-designer and founder of innovation sustainability consultants Ape Studios, argues that UK adoption of some EU regulations does not encourage corporations to reduce waste from the start. He said: “The EU Producer Responsibility regulations set targets for recovery and reuse and allowed each member state to develop their own approach. The cheapest way to do this, and what the UK did, was turn it into a tax. 

“The problem with this approach is that it stops companies designing smarter - instead of solving a problem, they can pay for the clear up costs afterwards. Current legislation pushes us towards recovering payment for this huge weight of wasted material rather than redesigning the product so that the problem will truly be addressed.”

The big challenge – or opportunity – post-Brexit, he said, is how we make more money from selling less stuff. How can the UK create a shared value so that we start owning things for longer and make products that last, but that won’t derail the economy?

Fortunately, more and more companies are adopting circular business models and finding new ways to make money by building less stuff. A new report by sustainable waste management charity WRAP (Waste and Resources Action Programme) has revealed that an industry-wide adoption of circular principles could unlock new economic opportunities.

The research outlined in Switched on to Value: Powering Business Change shows that while only 10% of UK households use recycling schemes to discard their unwanted electrical items, 83% of households demonstrated an interest in retailer take-back and trade-in schemes and 50% of customers were willing to buy quality used products from major retailers.

Shayler adds that developing new business models based on service is the key. “Everyone looks at great quality products and says, ‘Well it’s great if you can afford them’. But the reality is we could all afford them if companies changed the way they charge for them. If we build a business model around a monthly payment, rather than a one-off model then we start to change the relationship a company has with its customer, from a sales-based model to a service-based model.

“As soon as this is achieved, the product has to perform in a different way. Designers will have to change the design of the product so it will last longer and fulfil a contract that isn’t just based on a two-year warranty.”

Working with washing-machine manufacturers such as Samsung and Electrolux, Shayler has been helping many of them develop new businesses models for white goods. He added: “Imagine if you leased a washing machine rather than bought it? The consumer gets a better machine and uses it for four years. Then it gets re-serviced and goes to another user, then another and they would all pay a monthly fee for it. We are talking about second or third life markets for white goods via social sectors.

“The design challenge is how you upgrade the washing machine. We’ve found that one of the key parts in a washing machine that needs upgrading is the control unit. If you design and build the control unit into the door, rather than the body of the machine, you can upgrade it by simply taking the old door off and putting on a new one. And it doesn’t just have to be white goods. All suppliers from clothing to mobile phones are looking at this new model.

“Design is the single biggest environmental tool we have. But until we have a proper discussion about how we tax and legislate our economy, we will not get the designers taking sustainability to their hearts.”


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