Until the advent of cheap credit and cheaper item costs, for many consumers in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s rental was the most accessible way of obtaining products such as televisions, video recorders and washing machines that were high cost and frequently required repair. Now we buy cheap and pile high or just chuck out when something stops working – even if we could fix it.
The consumption of household goods in Western society is now at its upper limit, so much so that Steve Howard, Ikea’s head of sustainability, said it had reached “peak stuff”. While he was quick to say that this did not contradict Ikea’s target to double sales by 2020, he suggested a break from a prevailing “take, make, use, throw” economic model towards a circular model that encourages repair, reuse and collaborative ventures that share the use of products.
At the heart of the circular economy is the sharing economy, in which products and services are leased for a time. It’s about access rather than ownership, and any number of things can be shared, from transport, property and consumer goods (such as tools and kitchen appliances), as well as skills and knowledge.
There have been routes to borrowing items for many years – hiring formal clothing for events, for example, or car sharing schemes that are now commonplace in many cities. And despite more recent funding cuts, public libraries still offer access to books, music and films, while big businesses such as Amazon Kindle, Netflix and Spotify mean there is no need to actually own physical, hard copies of media items.
After an initial failure, SpaceX’s attempts to recover and reuse its Falcon 9 booster met with success, and in 2017 one recovered booster was used to launch a communications satellite. Rival company Blue Origin is also developing its reuseables. It means that in the age of space travel, we may already be taking advantage of cheaper, recycled technology.
Libraries of things
Back down to Earth, local community schemes have the potential to share expensive and rarely used items and change the way household goods are consumed. Grassroots examples include the Library of Things in London, a community business providing low-cost access to items such as DIY tools, sewing machines, camping and gardening equipment, carpet cleaners, projectors and musical instruments.
While sustainability is at the heart of the project, which resists an own everything, throwaway culture, the library is also a social space with a practical purpose. It reinvents the traditional models of renting, swapping, bartering and gifting, and also offers a place to meet and learn new skills through classes, workshops or one-to-one instruction in cooking, sewing, furniture making and general DIY skills.
This kind of scheme empowers people to use the items they borrow and to do things for themselves. And given that the average electric drill is in use for just 15 minutes each year, and is kept in storage for the rest of the time, it’s clear that many “household” items don’t really need to be owned at all. And sharing or borrowing means a better environmental impact.
More for less
The right to ownership and property is deeply rooted in Western culture for reasons from social status to convenience. Nevertheless, increasing the number of items that are leased or rented is feasible – the sharing economy offers financial savings and access to better quality goods in the short term, while reducing people’s personal carbon footprints, and in the case of projects like Library of Things and repair venture, Restart, a greater sense of community and skills sharing.
Established businesses may see these enterprises as a threat to their business models. After all, if consumers share or rent things, this might impact on sales. However, it could instead incentivise manufacturers to produce more reliable, durable products which they would retain ownership of and lease to consumers, remaining responsible for maintenance and replacement costs. This would mean further incentives to design and produce longer-lasting, reliable products which could easily be repaired or re-manufactured and passed onto less demanding customers at a lower cost.
Sharing as part of a circular economy promotes better efficiency in materials, which reduces the lifetime carbon emissions of products that are designed and maintained for optimum life spans and used more intensively. It allows for a growth in consumption without the corresponding demand for resources. This is one area that needs addressing if we are to stand a chance of reaching the targets set in the Climate Change Act and meeting commitments under the Paris Agreement.
An 80-95% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions produced within the EU by 2050 from 1990 may sound impressive, but it is not the whole story, as we discuss in a new paper published in Climate Policy.
The EU’s ‘Hidden’ Carbon Footprint
There is more than one way to calculate national carbon footprints and the way emissions are currently counted casts EU countries in a favourable light. Climate targets focus on greenhouse gases produced within the EU, not those required to support the consumption of its residents. While emissions produced within the EU’s territory – by its factories, power plants, buildings, cars and so on – are declining, emissions driven by EU consumption are rising.
Greenouse gases become embodied in products as energy is used, transforming raw materials into buildings, clothes, phones or cars. Some of these materials and products will be mined and manufactured abroad, and the EU imports more than it exports. As a result, the EU ‘consumes’ about 40% more emissions than it produces.
In our research, we looked across the whole EU supply chain (including overseas territory) to see where greenhouse gases are expended in the materials, transportation, construction, use, disposal and replacement of everything from buildings and cars to furniture and packaging. We calculated how many of these emissions are included/excluded from existing EU climate policies and whether policies could be extended to capture additional emissions as materials are transformed into products. Cutting carbon along product supply chains can also reduce production costs, so addressing the full supply chain emissions could realise cost savings too.
The EU’s Emissions Trading Scheme (EU ETS) is not doing enough to incentivise low carbon innovations in energy intensive industries and even if it was effective, the industries it addresses only produce 45% of the EU’s emissions. Alongside renewable energy targets, the EU’s climate package relies on energy efficiency measures to deliver its climate targets. Energy efficiency standards have made progress in reducing the energy consumed when using electronic goods, heating buildings and driving cars (i.e. in use). Yet this does not address all the energy needed to produce the EU’s homes, cars, phones, roads, food etc.
Taking a closer look at buildings and cars purchased by EU residents: the EU’s Building Performance Directive tackles the energy efficiency of buildings in use. However, an equivalent amount of the carbon used to heat buildings (i.e. in use) is used in their construction. Whilst 30% of the supply chain emissions are produced in sectors covered by the EU ETS (mainly power and material processing sectors), and are arguably addressed by existing climate policies, 30% sit outside EU climate policy altogether.
For cars, we can see that nearly three quarters of the supply chain carbon is emitted when driving (i.e. in-use) and subject to energy efficiency standards. All in all, however, 20% is left outside the scope of EU climate policy.
Extending European Energy Efficiency Standards to Include Material Use
This same analysis we have applied to cars and buildings can equally be applied to appliances, electronics, furniture, clothes, packaging etc. Their supply chains emit the equivalent of 40% of EU production emissions, with two thirds completely outside the scope of existing policies. Therefore there is significant potential for EU product policies to address climate change in this area.
Energy efficiency regulations and standards could be extended to include embodied emissions. For example, the Ecodesign Directive, the EU’s tool to improve the energy efficiency of electronics and appliances, does have a mechanism to address some aspects of embodied emissions, including promoting easy to repair designs which would reduce emissions embodied in material use. However, this was introduced when embodied emissions data was sparse and of poor quality. Without mandatory material efficiency standards this has not been utilised.
By addressing material efficiency alongside energy efficiency our research indicates that these measures can enhance the policy package for climate mitigation. There is however work to be done on designing the right policies to exploit these opportunities and this needs to be underpinned by a mainstreaming of knowledge of embodied emissions flows into policy, as well as research. In the ideal scenario we can provide a truer picture of the EU’s carbon footprint while simultaneously uncovering ways to substantially reduce it and save costs in the process.
A one day workshop in London examining relations between energy and economic growth on 30 June 2017 brought together over 30 representatives of the research, policy, and finance communities. The workshop focussed on the concept of Energy Return On energy Investment (EROI) and its potential implications for energy policy within government and the wider energy / economic policymaking community.
Energy Return on Investment (EROI)
The metric of Energy Return on Investment (EROI) measures how much energy is needed in any extraction process to deliver a quantity of energy output.
Trends in EROI can provide useful information around the changing quality of an energy resource, and the relative impacts of physical depletion and technological improvements. In the transition to a low carbon economy, awareness of this measure and its economic implications could provide a useful addition to the suite of analytical tools that inform energy policy development.
The role of energy in economic growth
During the workshop, speakers outlined the need to consider the role of energy as both an enabler of economic growth, and as a potential constraint on it. Conventional economic models tend to equate the importance of energy in the economy to its cost share, around 5 to 10% of GDP, but other theoretical and empirical approaches suggest that it plays a much more important role in economic growth.
Importantly, it was shown that the energy return on investment from conventional fossil fuels is in decline, and there is a wide range of estimates for the EROI of renewable energy sources, some of which are relatively low. This could lead to what one speaker called the “Red Queen” effect, whereby it is necessary to run harder just to stand still in economic terms – since it requires increasing effort to obtain the same amount of energy. Some speakers argued that an economy needs a certain level of net energy to maintain and grow economic output, but there were different views on the level of net energy that would be needed to sustain and grow the UK economy.
Future research needs
Despite differing views, there was wide agreement that further policy-relevant research is needed in this area. Key points identified for the research community included the need to:
Work towards a more consistent and robust estimation method for EROI and net energy, that allows different energy sources to be compared at the point of use stage;
Communicate not just EROI values, but also trends, set against threshold limits (“minimum” EROI required);
Work more closely with economists and the policy community to facilitate greater mutual understanding of the issue on both sides.
Brand-Correa L.I., Brockway P.E., Copeland C.L., Foxon T.J., Owen A., Taylor P.G., (2017) Developing an Input-Output Based Method to Estimate a National-Level Energy Return on Investment (EROI). Energies 2017, 10(4), 534 Available at: http://www.mdpi.com/1996-1073/10/4/534/pdf
In Britain and other developed countries, disposing of unwanted things is taken for granted. There is (lots of) legislation in place to ensure waste is collected, transported and treated safely without having an impact on either health or the environment. But waste management is a costly business, increasingly seen by organised criminals and opportunists alike as an easy way to make quick money.
Two recent instances of waste crime, in my local area, show how this can happen. In the first, a deserted factory, used for the illegal storage of 5,000 tonnes of partially treated waste was deliberately set alight using an accelerant. It contained combustible materials, such as plastics and decomposing food, making it particularly fire prone. The police investigation looking for the source of the waste, as well as the reason it was set alight, is ongoing.
Illegal waste dumps such as this are becoming an increasing problem, both in open countryside and hidden in rented buildings due to the potential income available from these crimes. Estimates from waste industry experts put illegal profits from this one operation somewhere between £400,000 to £500,000 for the cost of just two weeks rental on the building.
This kind of thing appears to be a victimless crime, but it isn’t. The building owner in the case of the illegal storage fire (who appears not to have been involved) faces losses. And we are all victims: burning this illegally stored waste has polluting impacts on both local air quality and local watercourses. The incineration of waste is one of the most highly regulated waste management processes, and rightly so.
Fire services managed to control the fire, so estimate that only 10-15% of the waste present was burnt. This leaves the problem of moving what remains to proper treatment facilities – who pays for this? Or the cost of the 65 fire service personnel it took to control the fire?
The removal, transport and disposal of asbestos is highly dangerous, heavily regulated and consequently expensive. This makes it attractive to criminals. Charging high rates for removal and dumping for free generates an easy profit. Again, wider society is the victim: there are serious health implications for anyone coming into contact with this waste, including the people that dumped it.
The bill for clearing this incident will be paid by local council tax payers. Nationally, clearing fly-tipping (leaving waste on land that doesn’t have a licence to accept it) costs tax-payers in excess of £200m a year. Clearance of fly-tipping on private land falls to the landowner, be that a private individual or charity such as the Woodland Trust, who report an annual clearance bill in excess of £350,000.
These waste crimes are taking place in plain sight. There are underlying causes to these crimes, which are allowing waste crime to flourish. Correct, legal waste disposal is expensive, with landfill and incineration charges now around £100 per tonne. This is why the profits of these crimes are high.
It seems that the traditional deterrents for these crimes, fines and prison sentences,
are not working, or are not tough enough. It is too easy for criminals to obtain documentation that makes their operations appear compliant. For example, waste carrier’s registration and waste exemptions, can be easily and quickly obtained online. These make waste operations – on the surface – appear legal.
It is also too easy for criminals to gain access to waste. On a small scale “scrap men” informally remove white goods and other metal objects from housing estates across the country. They have the implied consent of the householder who leaves unwanted items out and does not report their disappearance as a crime. Parts of these items which don’t have a resale value are often fly-tipped meaning the householder also, unknowingly, commits a crime themselves. There are more complaints to the local authority about the noise these collectors make with their bugles and loudspeaker appeals for “any old iron” than about the removal of items.
These informal or bogus collectors do not restrict themselves to scrap metal iron items. Used, unwanted textiles are worthwhile waste stream targets too because of the high prices they command in both secondhand markets and as a scrap.
Here, different tactics are employed, from the small-scale individual “fishing” for the contents of textile banks in car parks (with some fatalities) to the organised collection of bulk unwanted textiles from households. This is done either by the distribution of bogus collection bags to all households in a defined area, or the kerbside collection of bags distributed by a reputable charity before their own collection teams can retrieve them. Either way, it deprives honest charities of a much-needed funding source.
On a larger scale, the offer of cheap waste collections can be quite tempting. Waste is removed, the service paid for and then the waste is fly-tipped or stored at illegal, unregulated, waste sites leading to an immediate profit at a cost to us all. Assets of almost £1m have recently been recovered from one such waste crime through the Proceeds of Crime Act.
Across the UK illegal waste management practices are now a multi-million pound problem, with some serious underlying problems that need to be addressed. Apart from the associated criminality, fly-tipping damages the environment, poses risks to human health here and abroad, undermines legitimate businesses, reduces tax income so others have to pay more, and just looks really ugly. With the potential for easy, high profits – waste crime is joining the ranks of organised crime alongside drugs and human trafficking, cyber-crime and child exploitation and this has wider implications for society.
We must remember that many environmental regulations have been put in place as a response to serious incidents and resist the prospect of further deregulation. This may stand to cost us in terms of damage not only to the economy and environment – but also to human and public health.
On the 22nd June CIEMAP researcher Jannik Giesekam presented and chaired a session at the Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB) Annual Conference in Cardiff. Speakers at this year’s conference included First Minister of Wales Carwyn Jones; Chief Executive of Build UK Suzannah Nichol and author of the Farmer Review, Mark Farmer. The session Jannik chaired focussed on ‘Innovative construction materials and how to use them’. This included presentations on saving Egypt’s oldest pyramid, novel concrete canvas products, and innovative uses of local timber. Pictures, recordings and further information can be found on the CIOB Conference website.
On the 28th June CIEMAP researcher Jannik Giesekam presented at a UK Green Building Council (UK-GBC) Masterclass in London. The masterclass followed the launch of a new UK-GBC guidance document ‘Embodied Carbon: developing a client brief’, for which Jannik acted as a Technical Reviewer. The guidance sets out how construction clients can embed embodied carbon assessment on their projects, and includes detailed guidance on supporting tools, standards and methodologies. The masterclass focussed on helping a range of construction clients put the guidance into practice. Previous CIE-MAP research has demonstrated that reducing embodied carbon is an essential part of meeting the construction sector’s carbon reduction targets.
The ETH Academy group gathered together in front of the Kaubad Hotel
Suzana Matoh participated at the 10th ETH PhD Academy on Sustainability and Technology in Zürich and Appenzell in Switzerland. The academy took place from May 29 to June 3 and focused on ‘Ensuring a Sustainable Future: Technological, Organizational and Institutional Change’. Suzana was among 13 PhD students and postdocs from 8 countries who were selected to participate and present their research projects at this year’s ETH Academy.
The Academy began with a welcome dinner in Zürich where all the participants, organizers, and academy’s faculty met each other. The next day started with an introduction to the ETH Academy and short presentations by the academy’s faculty which consisted of Dr. Kathleen Eisenhardt, Dr. Inês Azevedo and Dr. Volker Hoffmann. Later on that day Professor Kathleen Eisenhardt gave a talk on ‘Weaving Strategic Decisions: Strategy Formation under Novelty, Resource Constraint and Complexity’.
A Traditional Swiss Fondue
After these talks the participants delivered paper presentations at the Kaubad Hotel. These were divided into three groups according to the Academy’s themes: technological change, organizational change, and institutional change. Each presenter was given a one hour slot for presentations and discussions. Suzana was a discussant for the paper on ‘Greening industrialization: Understanding how a technology’s product architecture and use environment affect local low-carbon industry development’ written and presented by Tyeler Matsuo from ETH Zürich.
Suzana also presented her paper on ‘Linking business model innovation to material demand reduction’. She was linked with PGR Hendrik Thelken from the University of Groningen as her discussant and Professor Eisenhardt and Professor Hoffmann for the in-depth feedback. Suzana received very useful feedback regarding her project in which she is linking decision-making to business model change in the sustainability context of material demand reduction. The feedback, comments, and suggestions from the discussant, professors, and other participants was very constructive and will help her move forward with the project.
Dr. Inês Azevedo also gave a very interesting and dynamic presentation about the Center for Climate and Energy Decision Making and their projects related to energy systems, how they are likely to be shaped in the future, and energy efficiency in the U.S. There was then a roundtable discussion where the professors answered questions and gave advice on how to build an academic career, how to approach publishing papers, and how to communicate projects effectively.
Hiking in the Swiss Alps
The ETH PhD Academy is a great platform for postgraduates to showcase their work and to network with other like-minded scholars. There was time for work and there was time for relaxation while walking in the beautiful nature surrounded by the breath-taking Swiss Alps, taking a dip in the swimming pool, or joining the yoga session guided by the one of the other participants. The family owned hotel in Kaubad was a perfect place to be, we were spoiled by a warm hospitality and delicious food in abundance. We had fun during the breaks and meals where we have learned different fun facts such as how to approach eating a traditional Swiss cheese fondue.
Researcher Kate Scott, with colleagues from CIEMAP, explores the potential for material productivity measures in UK industry to help meet the 4th and 5th carbon budgets. The analysis shows there is a unique opportunity to align industrial and climate policy through improved resource productivity which can drive innovation and develop new markets. While resource efficiency options are limited in energy intensive sectors, the analysis shows considerable opportunities further down the supply chain that address manufacturing, develop alternative business models and improve asset utilisation. A broad collection of strategies are needed across sectors, and researchers, businesses, trade organisations and government need a collaborative programme to inform and exploit these opportunities.
On 11th May 2017 we hosted a stakeholder engagement event exploring public perceptions of the circular economy that was attended by 30 high level guests, including researchers, policy makers, government officials, and heads of industry.
As businesses look to experiment with circular economy approaches, understanding how people feel about the new models, products and customer relationships involved will be crucial to their success. Social scientists from Cardiff University conducted an extensive set of public workshops to learn how people respond when presented with ideas like sharing their hedge trimmer with their neighbour, buying their washing machine and clean clothes as a service, or taking their detergent bottles back for a refill. Aiming to interest businesses, policymakers and researchers working on the circular economy, the workshop was a unique opportunity to hear about the initial findings of Cardiff’s research from Professor Nick Pidgeon and to shape their on-going analysis.
Exploring six aspects of the circular economy (products, business, ownership, community, waste and lifestyles) the event discussed the implications of the research findings for business and policy. A main outcome of the event was to identify a range of key challenges that need to be overcome in order to move towards a more circular economy. These included:
How to inspire trust concerning consumer-to-business and peer-to-peer relationships?
How to encourage the convenient and secure repair of products and technology often considered essential and hard to part with (e.g., mobile phones and laptops)?
How to overcome categorisation of product categories as unsuitable for sharing, leasing, remanufacturing etc?
Overall, the event was extremely successful in highlighting the importance of public perceptions and attitudes towards achieving a more circular future.
We are pleased to announce the 2nd Conference on Product Lifetimes and the Environment, PLATE 2017, which will take place in Delft, from 8-10 November, 2017. PLATE 2017 is the second international conference to address product lifetimes in the context of sustainability. It is the meeting place for researchers, designers, practitioners, and educators from a broad range of traditions and communities from all around the world.
An increase in product lifetimes and a move to a more circular economy are increasingly recognized as essential elements in resource efficiency, waste reduction and low carbon strategies for sustainability. For this reason, the first PLATE conference was held in 2015 at Nottingham Trent University, UK, which brought together over 100 academic researchers and industry representatives with a shared interest in tackling the detrimental effect of our consumption through product longevity. To continue this success, the PLATE 2017 Conference will be held at the Faculty of Industrial Design Engineering at Delft University of Technology.
The conference will provide a great opportunity to review the current state of research in this emerging field of knowledge. Academic researchers, industry representatives and policy stakeholders are invited to share their experiences and debate the implications of product longevity for environmental, economic and social sustainability.
A not-so-quiet repair revolution is taking place in communities across Britain. Consumers, fed up with having to throw away broken phones, toasters and other appliances, are instead meeting to learn how to repair them and to extend the lifetime of their products. These repair “pop-up parties”, where like-minded people can improve or learn new skills in a supportive environment, can prevent still-useful products from ending up in the bin, while saving money.
The number of electrical appliances and devices in UK households tripled between 1970 and 2002 and it continues to grow – the average household now owns around 41 electrical items. Many products develop simple faults which are challenging for the amateur to repair, resulting in replacement products being purchased and equipment with small faults being disposed of. For many consumers, repair is now only an option for high cost items such as cars and personal computers, or for household fixtures such as heating systems – washing machines, kettles and toasters are easier just to throw away.
The ability to repair goods is key to maintaining the functionality of products and delaying, or avoiding, their disposal. The government recognises the value of repair as part of a waste reduction strategy, and the Welsh and Scottish governments have also signalled strong backing for practical action that encourages a circular economy. In Sweden, there are plans to reduce the VAT on repair work from 25% to 12%, and in France there are penalties for “planned obsolescence”, intentionally producing goods with short lives. Germany and Spain have also been looking at the issue.
Restarts and pop-ups
Community-based organisations are providing innovative approaches to the repair of a variety of products including clothing and electrical equipment. Access to information, spare parts and tools is available on websites like iFixit, which publishes guides that teach people “how to fix almost anything” and invites users to create new ones.
The London-based Restart Project is a community-based repair initiative that runs a forum for motivated individuals to attempt repairs that extend the working lifetime of a variety of items, concentrating primarily on electrical and electronic equipment, and promotes awareness of recycling routes for items they can’t fix.
Restart also arranges pop-up events, where members of the public can take along broken electrical items and attempt to repair them with some support. Restart do not charge a membership fee, and admission to the events they organise is also free. Their aim is simply to enable repair to help extend the lifetime of electrical and electronic equipment and reduce the number of these items that become waste. Restart’s volunteers act as “repair coaches”.
They are also social gatherings, so even if repairs are unsuccessful, participants are still happy to go along and have a go.
Despite the good work being done, the repair network is complex and fragmented – there could be more of them, more widely located, and better known to consumers. Some consumers lack the skills, knowledge or confidence to attempt repairs, even when the resources are available. In a recent study conducted in partnership with The Restart Project, we asked participants at pop-up repair events about their previous experiences of repair. We also asked them about their recycling behaviours and their experiences at the pop-ups. Over half the participants had previously attempted to repair items on their own with different levels of success.
Confidence appears to play an important role in willingness to attempt repairs. It’s often easy to learn how to repair and purchase the tools and parts online, but the compact design of electricals and electronics often makes it an unforgiving task. Pop-up repair events offer a supportive environment in which you can receive help and support completing repairs, building your confidence.
Participants also described a lack of trust in commercial repair services with nearly half of the participants unable to name a repairer they trusted. Several mentioned that the perceived cost of a repair would discourage them from using local, paid-for repair services.
Informal community-based enterprises such as The Restart Project appear ideally placed to develop local networks and respond to the gap in trust.
We also identified that participants were less likely to recycle their electrical items than other waste such as paper, glass and tins. This is a problem because electrical items contain materials which require large energy inputs to create and transport. Nevertheless, pop-up repair events may be able to encourage correct disposal of broken and unwanted household items by telling people how best to dispose of them.
Pop-up repair events, such as those organised by Restart, have the potential to reinvigorate our enthusiasm for repair.