Making obsolescence obsolete: design to reduce waste

Imagine throwing away 21,000 of these
Imagine throwing away 21,000 of these

Today’s post is by Maroussia Klep of the OECD Environment Directorate

Let’s be honest, waste reduction doesn’t have much of a ring to it. To many, it’s a complex policy issue without much hope if consumers keep throwing their cans away in the street. Yet, designers are taking a different view, looking at reducing waste from a business angle.

The amount of material being extracted and wasted today is scary. In recent decades, the high consumption levels in developed countries, combined with rapid industrialisation in emerging economies, have led to unprecedented levels of demand for raw materials. In just thirty years, the quantity of materials extracted for consumption has increased by 60%. Even more worrying is that a fifth of these materials end up as waste. This represents over 12 billion tonnes of waste per year; the equivalent in weight of more than 21,000 Airbus A380s. Considering that the global economy is expected to quadruple by 2050, and that the world population keeps increasing, one might wonder how, and for how long our planet will be able to keep providing supplies.

In this context, one solution to avoid a collapse of natural resources is to break the link between economic growth and material extraction. A number of OECD countries have already demonstrated that this works: they manage to increase production, while at the same time reducing resource exploitation. These efforts are conducive to a “circular economy” approach. This new model aims to move away from the traditional, linear economic model, under which materials are extracted, consumed, and finally thrown away. With a circular economy, old products are re-used and remanufactured into new ones for as long as possible in order to preserve existing resources and to minimise extraction. When products finally reach their end of life, material is recovered and fed back into the economy, instead of being discarded. If this approach is handled efficiently, the notion of waste could one day become obsolete!

Designers have an important role to play in supporting a circular economy. In addition to studying the aesthetic and practicality of a product, they now have to cope with the threat of resource scarcity, and to somehow create an opportunity from it. In order to encourage re-use and recycling of a product or parts of it, designers can make used products easy to disassemble for example. Think of the quantity of valuable material lost in your old phone abandoned in the cupboard! Designers can also promote the use of recyclable materials in production. In Japan, a green tea company changed the design of its bottles to make them thinner and transparent instead of green-coloured, which facilitated recycling, and reduced costs. The global fashion retailer H&M also jumped on board recently: a few months ago, they launched their first trousers and skirts made out of textiles fibres recycled from used clothing collected from consumers.

These examples show that good design can be good for business – by reducing the quantity of materials purchased and used in production – and, at the same time, diminish pressure on the environment.

Policy makers can encourage and support firms and designers in many ways. First, in order to make the most efficient use of materials, designers need data and guidance on the availability and recyclability of resources. OECD work on Sustainable Materials Management and on Material Flow Analysis support these efforts, by promulgating measures aimed at preventing and reducing waste generation and managing residues in an environmentally sound manner. In addition, policy makers can promote the use of certain materials by setting requirements for green public procurement and product standards. Instruments such as taxes and standards can also be used to encourage recycling and material recovery. Finally, policy makers should ensure the good functioning of recycling markets, and encourage the entry of efficient recycling operators in order to make it a profitable business.

Of course, recycling and re-use efforts are undermined if consumers treat nature like a big garbage dump. Not only continents but even our oceans are starting to resemble giant dustbins. Awareness campaigns and communication efforts towards consumers are thus essential for closing the loop, and require joint efforts by corporations and municipalities. Those are but a few examples whereby public bodies can stimulate efforts by the private sector on the preservation of resources.

We live in interesting times. The planet is being exploited as never before, and there is no sign that global consumption will stop rising. On the other hand, some new trends provide hope. Businesses are starting to worry about the shortage of critical resources and are joining efforts by policy makers to move towards a circular economy. Amidst this paradox, a new, unexpected actor comes on stage: designers. By connecting financial and environmental interests from the point of production, design has indeed the potential to help reduce much damaging waste.

Useful links

OECD work on resource productivity and waste

OECD work on green growth and sustainable development

Message in a bottle: Producers not taxpayers should pay for the waste they generate

Waste of money
Waste of money

Today’s post is by Maroussia Klep of the OECD Environment Directorate

Have you ever wondered who was paying to recycle that plastic bottle you just threw away? Until recently, it would have been collected and – to the extent possible – recycled by municipalities with the use of public money. But this is changing and today most used bottles are managed directly by their manufacturers.

This evolution came with the introduction of the concept of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR). Put in simple terms, EPR shifts responsibility away from municipalities onto producers for managing and recycling used products; although municipalities and private recyclers may still be involved for certain tasks. This implies that a soda company is required to finance and organise the recycling of its bottles when they are discarded by consumers. The same applies of course to other sectors.

The movement first started in a few European countries in the early 1990s and developed rapidly across industrialised countries. Today, most OECD countries have implemented EPR policies in key sectors such as packaging, electronics, batteries, tyres and vehicles. In recent years, emerging economies in Asia, Africa and Latin America have also started to follow the move. There are now approximately 400 EPR programmes in place around the world.

EPR policies have proven to be successful in both, increasing collection and recycling rates, and in shifting the financial burden of waste management onto the shoulders of producers. Sharp improvements in recycling rates can indeed be observed following the introduction of such schemes, for example in Japan where the recycling of containers and packaging waste increased by 27% between 1997 and 2000 (1.25 to 1.59 million tons). In addition, these policies can reduce public spending and hence taxpayers’ money spent on waste management activities. In France for example, about 15% of the budget spent on municipal waste management is now financed by producers via EPR policies.

The OECD is playing an active role in encouraging and supporting governments in the implementation of EPR policies. In 2001, the organization published a Guidance Manual for Governments that provided the basic concepts and key policy recommendations on the topic. A Global Forum will take place this month in Tokyo to take stock of the evolution of EPR and will present a unique opportunity for a global, multi-stakeholder audience to exchange on their experience in designing and implementing such programmes. The outcomes of the discussions will help shape updated policy recommendations.

OECD work on EPR forms part of a broader effort to move towards resource efficient societies. The total volume of material resources extracted, harvested and consumed worldwide reached 62 billion metric tonnes (Gt) in 2008, a 65% increase since 1980 and an estimated 8 fold increase over the last century. It is projected to reach 100 Gt per year by 2030, generating increasing pressures on environmental resources as well as waste. Going for green growth and a resource efficient economy is thus a major environmental, development and macroeconomic challenge today. In this context, the use of policies that ensure sustainable materials management, building on the principles of the 3Rs – Reduce, Reuse, Recycle – is crucial. The OECD is therefore advising governments on Sustainable Materials Management (SMM) policies aiming to reduce the amount of resources that human economic activity requires and to diminish the environmental impacts from their production and consumption.

As expressed by Simon Upton, Director at the OECD Environment Directorate, “Sustainable materials management helps to address the social, environmental and economic impacts throughout the life-cycle of a product or material. This can improve resource productivity and competitiveness. EPR policies are an effective tool to engage producers in that process.”

EPR demonstrates that the involvement of all actors – governments, producers, recyclers, consumers – is necessary to address global environmental challenges. So, next time you drink a soda, just bear in mind to throw the bottle in the right bin, and the whole chain will keep running.

Useful links

OECD work on material resources, productivity and the environment

OECD work on resource productivity and waste

New product hits the market, old one hits the dumpster

iPad, I'm your father

A company that makes computers, phones and mp3 players brought out a new product yesterday. After months of feverish speculation in the world’s media that the new product might be a kind of computer, the company unveiled the product — a kind of computer — to the surprise and delight of a few thousand of its closest friends at a press conference in North America.

A company spokesman explained that the device, which we’ll call the iPaid, was bigger than a big phone but smaller than a small computer. He also pointed out that although you couldn’t phone with it, it could do many computer-type things like keeping you amused, and it was magical and revolutionary.

The questions not on everybody’s lips include how can they make these things so cheaply, and are they good for the planet? (more…)