It is heartening to note that manufacturers appear to be spending time and resources in designing products and packaging that either consume fewer of our scarce resources, or make it easier to reclaim them when the products have reached the end of their useful life. This approach is referred to as a circular model, where materials flow through a factory, are turned into saleable goods, and then come back round again to be reused. This is a different way of thinking from the traditional more linear approach, where goods flow out of a factory, and that is the last the manufacturer sees of them.
Jaguar Land Rover
One of the large manufacturing companies that is re-imagining its approach to material usage is Jaguar Land Rover (or JLR). Two of the current three models of Land Rover are made from aluminium, which gives better fuel efficiency than steel as it is lighter. The difficulty with this approach is that smelting aluminium takes more energy than producing steel, and more CO2 is emitted during the process. JLR are getting around that problem by re-using aluminium that has previously been scrapped off and recovered. They are currently hitting 50% recycled aluminium, with a target of 75% They are so pleased with the results of recycled aluminium, that they are looking at the top ten other materials they use (including plastics and glass) with a view to incorporating recycled materials instead of new ones. It takes a bit more effort to get a reliable source of previously used raw materials, but the company benefits economically as well as improving its environmental performance.
Environmental legislation has forced manufacturers to think about the energy efficiency of their products – if you have bought any white goods recently you will have noticed the efficiency ratings prominently displayed on things like freezers and dishwashers. Now the regulations are pushing them towards considerations of repairability and then end of life, dismantling, recycling and disposal too. No manufacturer wants to spend money on product development for no increase in profits, however the circular model is one of the rare chances for manufacturers to grasp the opportunity for a win-win. Not only will it make them more environmentally friendly (which they will not hesitate to use in their publicity material), but will make them even more profitable too.
Consumers can play their part
As consumers, we also have a responsibility to try to move away from the lifestyle that sees functional electronic items being sent to the tip because they don’t have the latest features. It is unfortunately often easier to dump something like a fridge or a washing machine than to sell it or pass it on to someone who can make better use of it. It’s always worth remembering that we all inhabit the same planet, and we all have to share the same scarce resources. The prospect of mining other planets for rare materials is still science fiction, so we really do need to try to be responsible with what we’ve got.