Your phone is going to die. The circular economy will save it

Your phone is going to die. The circular economy will save it

Posted By James Bates-Prince

Your washing machine is going to die. Your hair dryer will self-immolate. Your running shoes - doomed. Your phone will slow down, wither and perish.

No matter how much you spend and how delicately you care for them, certain products just have a death day. With any luck that day is long in the distance, but when it does come there’s little you can do. And really, you aren’t that surprised.

When you call customer service, they’re not shocked either. When you ask for a repair, you’re advised a new one will be more cost-effective. When you cave and buy a new version, your old flame is headed for its own personal graveyard.

The shoes probably go in the bin. Hair dryer, bin. The washing machine you arrange to have taken away. It ends up as scrap or in a tip. Maybe you try to sell the mobile phone on eBay: faulty or for parts. Or perhaps it nestles in your office cabinet, third drawer down, among your personal accumulated jungle of the obsolete. A new home between scart lead city and floppy disk forest.

circular economy

The way things are made and used is long established. Everyone alive on the planet today is participant in a linear economy. Resources are extracted. Products are made. Products are used. Products break. Products are thrown away.

BuyMeOnce advocates for the extension of the usage phase. We think that manufacturers should focus on the lifetime of an item, rather than just the point of sale. By producing longer lasting products we can consume less, spend less, and develop genuine attachment to those things in life we hold dear.

But what about things that can’t have their life reasonably extended? Or products that make such frequent technological leaps as to constantly make their ancestors obsolete?

The answer is the circular economy. A circular mindset means that a product’s origins, its useful life and its life beyond use are all on equal footing.

What if your washing machine was built with its failure in mind? Parts would be manufactured not just for ease of assembly, but disassembly too. The failure points on a good washing machine are relatively few and well known (the motor, pump and control panel), so the impact on in-home repair outcomes would be incredible.

Washing machines have a uniquely consistent design; the size and shape of a machine is already determined by ergonomics. Plumbing and circuitry will undoubtedly see efficiency improvements in the future, but the bulk of the machine may remain unchanged. After several repair cycles, the manufacturer could reclaim the old model and easily remanufacture or recycle it. circular economy

One company is already working on a type of modular machine to wake up the competition. The incredible L’increvable will come with a 50-year guarantee, with all of its parts designed for disassembly.

Price is still the defining factor for most, and if such repairable, long-lasting and remanufacture-ready machines come at a premium, few people stand to benefit. Although even at current price levels, it’s still cheaper long term to plump for a well-made machine; high-end machines cost users roughly 12 cents per washing cycle, while low-end machines end up costing 27 cents per cycle.

A fully circular economy would take the thoroughly thought out design ideals to their logical conclusion. When it’s cheaper in the long-run to buy quality, but ordinary customers are priced out at the point of sale, broader change is required. A transition to leasing is the first best option.

Crucially, the Ellen Macarthur Foundation estimates that over a five year period, it’s not just customers that will save money - high-end manufacturers win too. Manufacturing and materials costs would be cut with better remanufacturing, while the lease arrangement opens them up to an ocean of new customers. There would be losers of course - those that make cheap, low-quality machines.

This year, humanity will spend half a trillion on mobile phones. 18 months from now the average American will already have purchased their next model. In the UK, there are an estimated 125 million handsets lying around unused.

The rate of technological advancement is so fast that even though there is actually a healthy resale market for mobile phones, the useful life is rarely extended beyond five years. When that lifespan is met, outcomes are bleak.

Only 9% of phones end up recycled, and of that figure, little of the value is tapped into. Easily recyclable materials such as copper, aluminium and plastic may be reclaimed. But the crucial high value and high toxicity rare-earth metals required for modern phones are untapped.

The Ellen Macarthur Foundation estimates that if phone collection rates hit 50% in Europe alone, savings for manufacturers could amount to USD 1 billion. But that relies on a heavy lean on refurbishment and repair; whether or not customers will be convinced to return to out of date tech is debatable.

The Fairphone approach leads the way. Their modular construction means that at the end of the device’s natural life, disassembly and reapplication will be a piece of cake. Upgrading your phone could be as simple as ordering a new module. If you decide to opt for a new handset entirely, you can feel assured that the designed-for-disassembly Fairphone will be easily torn down and rebuilt, saving money and leaving resources in the ground.

Very little need be written off as a lost cause. Running shoes are the prototypical bane of reuse. A regular runner will burn through multiple pairs in a year, and these aren’t Goodyear Welted, resoleable monsters. When a running shoe is done, it’s done.

Yet still, there are options at both the beginning and end of a lifecycle. Your running shoes can help breathe life into other items - even waste. SoleRebels make their soles out of car tyres and their laces out of inner tubes, while even the retail giant that is Adidas has launched a range of shoes built using Ocean plastic.

Return your Runner’s World trainers to them at the end of their life, and they’ll send them off for recycling. Not only that, they’ll give you £20 for your trouble. While Nike won’t pay you for the privilege, if you drop your tattered brogues at their door they’ll be transformed into “Nike Grind” - a material used to create athletic and playground surfaces.

We hope to see continued and real progress towards a circular future, but it’s more than a vague hope. What’s great about the circular economy principle is that it doesn’t just make environmental sense; it makes profound economic sense. And ultimately, that’s the only kind that people with power care for.

If you can’t buy for life, buy circular. You won’t find yourself out of pocket. Care for anything you do own with a respect for the processes that went in, and with an eye on the future of the item. And when the time comes to part with a product, check the options. Someone else might have a use for it - and it might even make you some money.

The real and lasting change will need to come from higher powers.

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