Recycling is not enough! Sharing is the path to a circular economy

    05 Oct 2021

    How can we reduce the use of raw materials? To break out of the “iron cage of consumption”, says Mariel Moreno from The Ecologist, you need to use things to the last – whether it’s clothes, houses, cars, join a car club, share appliances with neighbors and return the washing machine!

    Shared consumption has demonstrated new ways of distributing goods and services to consumers. The use of common property is an alternative to consumption.

    Every year a huge amount of valuable resources is considered “waste” and sent to landfill. For example, the UK imports about 540 million tonnes of products and materials annually, but only 117 million tonnes will be processed.

    However if we truly thought that waste equals value, and ensured that resources are kept in the economy for longer and thus reducing the use of raw materials, we could make serious steps towards diverting all this waste from landfill. This is what’s known as the circular economy.

    For the circular economy to thrive, we must be serious about reducing waste. And yet we’re still locked into an ‘iron cage of consumerism‘. Shifting to a future in which we’re more efficient with materials will require significant changes in the way we consume things and in the way businesses are organised.

    To realize this shift, it may be necessary to recognize that many customers simply do not consider the sustainability of the main point of sale of the product. We need to be realistic, and businesses need to be consumer-oriented.

    Recycling has so far focused on production waste, but this is far from ideal because a lot of energy is spent on recycling materials and transporting them.

    We need to focus on using the new material for as long as possible and cultivate a culture of consumption. To do this, businesses need to think differently about how products are delivered to consumers.

    Tell the truth – stuff lasts

    Providing better information to consumers about durability of products would be a good start. Giving accurate lifetime information on product labels could keep them in use for a longer time.

    The average consumer expects a washing machine to last six years before it needs to be replaced, and Which? magazine cites quality and reliability as strong buying criteria. So why don’t people actually keep their washing machines for that long?

    This is because consumers are confused by the labeling. They tend to estimate the expected service life of large appliances under the warranty of the manufacturer. However, most simply give a one to two year warranty, so it is difficult for consumers to really estimate the optimal service life.

    Eliminating this will mean that the business and its brands are becoming more reliable, which allows you to create longer relationships with consumers. If people do not change the brand for a long time, the products will be considered less disposable.

    What does this mean for business?

    Leasing is not a new concept, but it can pay dividends for the environment; this is one of the business models that could reduce the use of materials in the long run.

    Why not rent household appliances, such as washing machines? They can be rented from manufacturers. Manufacturers, not consumers, will be responsible for repairs and replacements. This should be done in a way that outweighs any commercial benefits that can be derived from the production of short-lived products.

    More use of leasing, therefore, will significantly reduce material consumption. The equipment can be reused from one consumer to another, while all repairs will be carried out by the manufacturer, instead of writing off the machines in case of damage.

    It also provides an additional benefit for manufacturers, which will be stretched over time, which will lead to changes in the design of washing machines (increase attention to durability).

    It is true that consumers have already formed purchasing habits, and that firms will face significant costs in creating a new business model. But the benefits can outweigh the immediate barriers.

    There will be significant cost savings in manufacturing materials, something that could become very important in the future. The more scarce materials become, the more expensive they will be – this is a real pressure point for tomorrow’s industry.

    Reuse, repair services and leasing models are inevitably becoming more attractive to businesses looking for ways to make a profit at a higher cost.

    We need an Airbnb for laundromats

    In the past few years, the sharing economy or collaborative consumption has demonstrated new ways of distributing goods and services to consumers. As goods are shared instead of owned, the sharing economy represents an alternative to our consumerist society.

    Take for example Bla Bla Car, where people can share a ride, or Airbnb where travellers can rent a spare room in someones home, as an alternative accommodation. This peer-to-peer business models had prove to be successful. However, there still some barriers as they depend on trust between people.

    Similar business models could be applied to other products such as large household appliances. A laundromat is the perfect example. In Scandinavian countries, famed for their sustainability, it is very common to find well equipped laundry rooms in private and municipal apartment blocks and housing estates.

    However, in the UK and many other countries laundromats are often perceived as unhygenic and people can be snobby towards them. Such attitudes aren’t helpful. We should reinvent the laundromat as a key part of the shift towards a more sustainable, sharing economy.

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