Alexander Collot d’Escury examines whether China, with one of the world’s biggest manufacturing economies, can lead the global pursuit of a circular economy.
Manufacturers today are at a crossroads. One way is the business-as-usual approach based on the linear economy, in which goods are made to be used for a short time by consumers and then mostly dumped or incinerated. But with a growing world population and the emergence of billions of new consumers in the rising markets, most people realize this is not sustainable.
In addition, the linear system contributes to climate change and damages other ecosystems such as rivers. It also lacks a focus on excluding toxicity in products. A better system needs to be created and one avenue which is gaining ground is the circular economy, in which goods are designed to be remade in an ongoing non-toxic closed-loop system.
Asia is well aware of the need to change, not least because much of the world’s waste ends up in its backyard as well as in other emerging markets. As one writer put it recently in The Guardian newspaper:
“The developing world is becoming the West’s digital dumping ground. Every year around 50 million tonnes of unwanted electronic devices make their way to vast e-waste dumps in Guiyu in China and Agbogbloshie in Ghana – often illegally. Some of them will be repaired and resold. Others will be broken into their components, at considerable expense to the environment and people’s health, and sold as raw materials to manufacturers. Yet more will be left as piles of toxic litter.”
If this continues the problem will only get worse. The article continues: “In fact, only around 13% of the e-waste generated each year is recycled. The increasing amounts of digital tech brought by middle-class consumers in China, India and Africa is a growing part of the problem. If the trend continues, the annual amount of global e-waste will be 65 million tonnes by 2017.”
It is not just about designing products so that they can be returned, disassembled and recycled. It is about thinking about how to make a product good from the start, so that it has a positive impact on the environment and human health.
Cradle-to-cradle pioneers Dr Michael Braungart and William McDonough have inspired many businesses with their call for designing for “eco-effectiveness”, as described in their latest book, The Upcycle: “Human beings don’t have a pollution problem; they have a design problem. If humans were to devise products, tools, furniture, homes, factories and cities more intelligently from the start, they wouldn’t even need to think in terms of waste, or contamination, or scarcity. Good design would allow for abundance, endless reuse, and pleasure.”
That is the vision. But can this be adopted by manufacturers at scale? There are important pioneers in this area showing the way. For example, electronics company Philips does not sell light, it leases it. This service-based model encourages manufacturers to make durable products that can be disassembled later and recycled, reused or remanufactured in a healthy and responsible way. And Philips is showing the model can be profitable and popular with customers.
Written By: Alexander Collot d’Escury
Published: 10 September 2014