How to grow a circular economy

http://therestartproject.org/consumption/how-to-grow-a-circular-economy/

Last year, our TEDx talk raised the question of how to move towards a people-centred circular economy. This question is more relevant than ever. Recently, we contributed to the Environmental Audit Committee’s ongoing inquiry on Growing a Circular Economy – our evidence follows below. Thanks to researcher Lara Houston for turning our concerns and ideas into this document.

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1 / About The Restart Project

The Restart Project is a London-based social enterprise, registered as a Charitable Incorporated Organisation, that encourages and empowers people to use their electronics and household electricals longer, by learning repair and maintenance skills. Our community events create engaging opportunities to increase the lifespan of Electronic and Electrical Equipment (EEE). At our regular ‘Restart Parties’ in the London boroughs of Camden, Hackney and Lambeth, participants undertake guided self-repair of EEE, transforming broken objects back into working ones, and diverting these from waste streams. We have diverted over 750kg of electronics from waste in 55 events since 2012, and we are supporting groups across the UK to replicate our community work. Our work also includes a wider strand of repair activism and advocacy. We lecture on design, repair and resilience: educating designers-in-training, persuading organisations and engaging the public in the benefits of re-use.

2 / Contributing to the ‘Circular Economy’

It is clear to us that the linear modes of consumption based on a ‘take-make-dispose pattern’ are not working. The high levels of waste generated in this paradigm of consumption have egregious social and environmental impacts, widely documented elsewhere. Although preferable to other modes of disposal, recycling is energy-intensive and cannot be the only or simple ‘solution’ to the e-waste ‘problem’. We support the more holistic framework provided by the circular economy, which emphasises the conservation and re-use of resources throughout multiple product life cycles. In the context of this consultation, our experience and expertise can contribute to two particular aspects of the circular economy: the ‘power of circling longer,’ which refers to the maximisation of the lifetime of products through multiple cycles, and the local, efficient ‘inner circle,’ in which repair and re-use unleash the value of products currently designated as waste.

3.1 / Current Barriers to Repair at the Local Level

Individuals that attend our repair events often describe to us the barriers of entry they face to repairing broken EEE. Most obviously, they are unsure how to access reliable repair services. This concern has two components. Firstly, consumers struggle to find clear and accessible information on repair services in their local areas. Secondly, there is a question around trust in these services: how to repair, (or have an object repaired) in a reliable environment, and in an affordable way.

3.2 / There are some extremely straightforward recommendations that we can make to improve the situation for consumers. As the statutory collectors of household waste, local authorities could and should play a much larger role in the provision of information about pathways to repair. They primarily promote recycling to residents as part of their waste management strategies. This reflects the bias of the WEEE Directive (which despite a recent recast has failed to incorporate requirements to increase re-use) and the EU Waste Framework Directive. Moving towards a circular economy perspective would require local authorities to prioritise re-use and repair as a core part of their waste strategies. They could take on a key role in communicating the message to residents that re-use and repair must come before recycling or other forms of disposal. Local authorities could augment the information they provide on recycling and waste disposal to include in-depth information on the opportunities for re-use and repair within the local area.

3.3 / Concrete actions we would like to see happening now include: updating borough council printed and online communications to include details of local repair businesses, re-use charities and social enterprises, community re-distribution services such as Freecycle and Freegle, local and online second-hand markets, and community repair groups such as ours. We understand that in the current climate of resource cuts that civil society organisations must come on board as partners in this enterprise. We are particularly keen that information on local repair infrastructures generated by local councils be available as geo-coded data licensed as open. Groups such as The Restart Project could leverage this data in a wide variety of different ways, helping to add value to the work undertaken by local authorities. For example, other groups or companies could build review platforms for these repair enterprises, helping to establish the trusted networks that consumers are so keen to see. This kind of promotional activity helps to bring residents into contact with their local ecosystem of repair services. It works to sustain these important local businesses, but also strengthens local economic development more widely.

3.4 / The recycling centres operated by local authorities and their contractors are extremely important locations for enabling re-use and repair. Currently, WRAP estimates that as much as 23% of WEEE disposed of at recycling centres has the potential to be repaired3. The re-use of WEEE has the potential to save the taxpayer of £1.9 million on goods with a resale value of £231.5 million4. Local authorities must resist categorising all the goods that come to their recycling centres as waste, and deal in a more contextual way with equipment that is functional but unwanted, or broken but repairable. As a bare minimum, local authorities and their contractors should signpost residents towards repair services at these sites. But we feel that they could adopt a more active approach. WEEE suitable for re-use or repair could be identified and directed towards local re-use and repair organisations for refurbishment and re-distribution. Local authorities could even partner with these organisations and provide them with much needed space for repair activities. The cost of renting space is particularly onerous for charitable and social enterprises and local authorities would also therefore be contributing to their sustainability. In return, these organisations deliver direct savings to the council by diverting these items from the waste stream and provide social benefits through the dissemination of repair skills and refurbished EEE. The Community RePaint network is an example of one such scheme in action.

4.1 / Central Government Levers

As we have previously observed, cost is a factor in deterring consumers from repairing broken EEE. Skilled labour is expensive, and processes of manufacturing may mitigate these costs through particular forms of organising or outsourcing, in ways not currently practical for after-sales servicing. Again, we welcome the more holistic re-imagining integral to the circular economy discussion, where both the design of devices, and the structuring of relations between consumer and company are organised in ways that reduce the costs of repair. Companies should certainly be incentivised to create new workflows that include production and after-sales repair. However, we believe that there are steps that central government could take to encourage repair in the independent sector now. Given the social and environmental benefits of repair, plus the direct savings to local authorities through the diversion of materials from the waste stream, we suggest that repair services should not be subject to Value Added Tax (VAT) in order to make repairing more attractive and to allow the sector to survive and thrive.

4.2 / The European Environmental Bureau (EEB) report Advancing Resource Efficiency in Europe (2014) recognises the role that re-use can play in job creation. They estimate that a modest increase in recycling and reuse rates to 55% would create an additional 634,769 jobs by 2025. These evaluations only include figures for furniture and textile re-use, and it is likely that the repair of higher value EEE streams would contribute more jobs. In their report Routes to Re-Use (2014) the Local Government Authority (LGA) suggests a cut to National Insurance Contributions (NICs) for additional staff in repair organisations would assist in the expansion of the repair sector. This suggestion that will increase the viability of both non-profit and profit-making enterprises, and encourage innovative new organisations within this area, and we endorse it.

5 / Conclusion

In summary, The Restart Project would like to see the following actions:

  • Local authorities should recognise the primacy of reuse in the waste hierarchy as prior to recycling and take the lead in communicating this message to residents
  • They should provide information and signposting to repair enterprises and organizations in the local area to residents, both online and at recycling centres
  • This geo-coded data should be licensed as open and be available for public reuse to allow citizens to innovate new services with it
  • Local authorities and their contractors should not treat all EEE that they receive as waste
  • In dealing with functional or repairable EEE, they should consider partnerships with repair organisations, in supplying goods for repair, or sharing space
  • Central government should remove or reduce VAT on repairs, and consider reducing NIC contributions in order to stimulate growth
  • The circular economy literature emphasises the role of manufacturers – however, producer take-back schemes as they currently stand cannot be seen as a solution: the circular paradigm must include independent repair enterprises and civil society organisations
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