Every year, we throw away millions of euros worth of goods that could be repaired or reused. Europe must seize the opportunity offered by the new Circular Economy Package to turn this situation around, argues Michal Len.
Michal Len is the director of RREUSE, a representative body for social enterprises active in reuse, repair and recycling.
Earlier this year, a mystery woman from California made headlines around the world after dropping off some junk computer equipment at a recycling centre. It turned out that among the items she disposed of was a rare example of one of the first, hand-built Apple computers, the Apple I, worth around $200,000.
Not everyone has such a valuable vintage gadget lying around their attic, but as a society we collectively throw away millions of euros worth of goods every year in Europe, that could be simply prepared for reuse by someone else.
In recent years, we have become converts to the religion of recycling, and largely lost the art of repair and reuse. For the sake of our environment, our wallets and society at large, it´s time to recover this lost ground. We believe the European Commission´s Circular Economy Package can play an important role in this.
First, let’s look at the facts. According to recent estimates, one third of all material arriving at recycling centres could still be reused and at least one quarter of electronic waste still has significant reuse value. An estimated six million tonnes of textile waste is either landfilled or incinerated in the EU every year. That’s a hard number to visualise, but it´s roughly the weight of the Great Pyramid at Giza, which is made of stone, or filling 5,500 Olympic sized swimming pools with used clothes.
This systemic failure to make the best use of limited resources through extending a product’s life-cycle by promoting reuse and preparation for reuse has not happened by accident, but is an unintended consequence of policies that have promoted recycling above all else. While there are a number of platforms that help people to retain or pass on some of the value of their second-hand goods, huge volumes end up in recycling centres that are just not set up to promote reuse. Dumping a washing machine or flat screen television in a container unprotected from the rain is a sure way to destroy its reuse value. And the organisations that have the skills and infrastructure to prepare goods for reuse are largely excluded from accessing discarded goods at facilities such as recycling centres. This has to change.
To begin reversing these trends, we believe the EU should set reuse targets alongside the existing recycling targets. Spain and the region of Flanders in Belgium are leading the way in this area, and an EU level target as part of the revised Circular Economy package would ensure others follow. But reuse organisations also need to be given access to recycling centres, so they can ensure that storage and transport of reusable goods is done right.
It’s just common sense, and though different member states manage and track waste in many different ways, an aspirational target would help point all countries in the right direction with massive potential benefits for our environment and our economies as well as a significant positive social impact. Reuse and repair is a powerful engine for local job creation in a Europe that has lost millions of manufacturing jobs to the Far East.
Another major opportunity to reverse these trends is to ensure that the goods we use are designed for a longer life, and are made easier and cheaper to repair. As with waste and recycling, product policy in recent years has been fixated mainly on energy efficiency. But throwing out a laptop for one which is more energy efficient will not help the planet when considering that the embodied energy and resources needed in the production phase outweigh any potential energy savings in the use phase.
From everything from bringing back replaceable batteries in mobile phones and computers, to ensuring that parts can be removed without specialist tools, there are numerous design criteria that could ensure the products we buy get a longer life. And the EU, as a regional and global standard setter, should play a crucial role.
If human ingenuity can build the Great Pyramid of Giza, we can surely figure out how to make the things we need for modern life last longer, and start to turn back the tide of goods that are needlessly thrown away every day in Europe. It’s time to put second-hand first.