Our economy today works on the “take-make-waste” model. We take natural resources, make things from them and when we’re done with them, we throw them away, usually into a huge pile of rubbish that will take hundreds of years to decay, i.e. landfill. So at its worst, we grow cotton, make a shirt or a dress, wear it a few times, get bored with it and throw it in the bin. Or dig precious metals from the earth, make a phone, use it for a couple of years, it gets slower and there’s a new shiny model available, so we want the new one and we throw the phone in the bin. On a planet of finite resources, finite space and a constantly growing population, we can’t continue to live like this.
Enter the circular economy. This is the concept that we should take our “take-make-waste” linear model and turn it into a circle: “take-make-use for longer-repair-share-reuse-recycle-make …..”. Adopting this concept means we can live in a way that doesn’t damage the planet, that could support our ever-growing population and that is actually regenerative, it improves the environment around us.
There are 3 principles to this model:
Design out waste and pollution – changing our mindset to think that there is no such thing as waste. There is no “away” to throw it to. We need to minimise the unwanted by-products of a process or design and work out how to use the remaining ones as input into another process. An example of this is Toast Ale who use waste bread from bakeries as a raw material in their beer making process.
Keep products and materials in use – extend the life of products for as long as possible, design them to be used for a long time and to be repairable. When a product can’t be used any more, keep the materials in it as valuable as possible. Recycling often reduces the value of a material so this is the last option, re-using them is preferable. Fairphone is an example of this – they create modular smart phones where each component is easily replaced or upgraded when necessary.
Regenerate natural systems – return nutrients to the soil to improve the natural environment rather than depleting it. Ostara in Canada are doing this by extracting phosphorous from waste water and making it into fertiliser to return the nutrients to the soil.
It’s critical that we create this circle and designing products and processes to be circular from the outset is a key part of that, which is what principle 1 is about. But it’s not enough. We need the circle to also be a slow as possible, which is principle 2 – keeping products in use for as long as possible. And that’s where repair comes in. It seems like an old-fashioned concept, the idea of “make do and mend” and living happily with what we already have. We need to go back to this mindset of previous generations and reverse our throw-away culture but we have some problems to overcome to get there.
Products today are often not designed for repair: they are difficult to take apart, have tamper-proof screws that require special screwdrivers, are glued together, don’t have instructions or spare parts available. Some companies want us to buy more of the newest version or latest fashion – their profits are reliant on that and so they don’t make things to last or to be easily repaired. Consumers want new things too though. Our culture today applies a lot of pressure to have the latest stuff, not wear the same outfit twice and we have a general mindset about needing convenience and that throwaway is good. We’ve also lost the knowledge and confidence to repair things even if we want to, partly because it’s getting harder to do and partly because we haven’t learned those skills from our parents or from our education or just by mucking about and trying.
But positive change is happening:
Some companies are actively helping with repair. Patagonia, the outdoor clothing company, ran a campaign a few years ago asking people to not buy their jacket because you don’t need another one (obviously their sales rocketed!). They intentionally make high quality clothing that lasts, give advice on caring for it to ensure the longest life possible and will help you with repair and with selling second-hand if you don’t want it any more.
Other companies are changing their model to make it in their interest to make their product last as long as possible. The start-up enso make tyres for electric cars and they won’t sell you a tyre, you have to lease it from them so it’s beneficial for them to increase the durability of their tyres so they don’t have the cost of having to replace them. One the tyre has finished its useful life, enso still own it so they have the material and can use it for second life purposes.
The Right to Repair campaigns across the US and other countries are aiming to get laws in place to make companies provide repair guides and spare parts for their products. They are getting some traction but also coming up against strong corporate lobbying from companies who don’t see this to be in their interest.
When it comes to the knowledge and confidence gap, repair cafes are helping to plug that. Repair cafes are community groups where people can take their broken household items and volunteers will try and fix them. It started in Amsterdam in 2009 and there are now over 1800 cafes round the world and about 100 in the UK. I’m a trustee and volunteer at Farnham Repair Café in Surrey, UK. I love it for 2 reasons: firstly because I hate throwing things away and secondly the community aspect of it, both the volunteers and the visitors. We’re open once a month and have about 55 visitors at each session, some of whom are regulars. People can bring all sorts of things, for example: electrical, mechanical, bikes, laptops, clothes, furniture and our fix rate is 64%. Since we started 4 years ago we’ve saved 2.5 tonnes of stuff from landfill and kept those products in use, saving visitors almost £70,000. There’s an important social benefit too: offering people advice, helping fix things that they couldn’t afford to replace if they broke and particularly with older people, creating a community space to visit regularly to chat and get some help.
We also find that visitors seeing a volunteer fix their item increases their confidence in having a go with other broken things in future. YouTube and iFixit are great resources for this and there are tons of videos of people giving advice of how to fix things. The drive belt on my bread maker broke last year and a guy in his kitchen in Mexico had done a great video on that particular bread maker – advising that to get the thing opened properly is really complicated and takes a tamper proof screwdriver, but the drive belt is at the bottom, so you can cut the bottom open and easily replace the belt. Google pretty much any product and someone will have some tips on how to fix it.
Repair is a crucial part of the circular economy, keeping products in use for as long as possible and so reducing the amount of resources we use. Change at scale will come when companies can see a benefit in enabling repair, that it supports their business model rather than harming it. Until then, repair cafes, YouTube and disruptive, progressive companies will lead the way.