what comes first: design or disassembly?

Those familiar with circular economy thinking will know that to bend something linear requires two ends of the line to curve into one. Those two end-points are design (the start-of-use process) and disassembly (the end-of-use process). Given our current misaligned value chain, cluttered with diverging business models and vested interests, achieving such spherical glory is going to be tough to say the least.

Designers and reprocessors are like passing ships in the night. If indeed they pass at all. There is embryonic work being undertaken, by the likes of the Great Recovery project, to steer the captains of these vessels to a safe port where they can meet, greet, and get to know each other a little better. The rationale is simple: if we are to design better, so that the rarest and tiniest elements of a product can be recovered in a viable way, then those that specialise in pulling apart need to be educated and equipped with the right tools and techniques to do so.

Given the volumes of waste being churned out right now, those tools and techniques cannot rely on manual labour alone. Reprocessing infrastructure will have to remain automated for the most part – but become more specialised – and this requires hefty investment. And will a reprocessor be willing to pay upfront for new kit with no guarantee of tonnage? Products designed for disassembly are in their infancy. There simply aren’t the quantities out there right now.

I recently talked to one leading manufacturer who is redesigning many of its products so they can be taken apart with a single screwdriver. This is admirable. What isn’t so admirable is that most of its competitors aren’t bothering. Unless this manufacturer can find a way to exert greater ownership of its products, perhaps through leasing arrangements or takeback schemes, they will invariably end up in a mixed waste stream, bulked up with other models, and get fed through a rather unrefined treatment process.

Both ends of that linear pipeline need to work in tandem to solve this dilemma. The design opportunity is immense, but it will only be realised if the recovery merchants can be pulled into it. And this can’t happen in isolation – one manufacturer working with one reprocessor – it will merely stop at a brand reputation exercise. Such collaboration needs to be scaled up if it is to challenge the status quo. What it will take to seal such a deal remains to be seen.

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