Make it easier to reuse and everyone will do it

Written by: Dr Christine Cole | Published:
Dr Christine Cole from the Centre for Industrial Energy, Materials and Products at Nottingham Trent University

Reuse would be more common if it was simpler to donate reusable items, and networks were developed specifically for managing certain waste items and recovering them in a way that retained their value, writes Dr Christine Cole from the Centre for Industrial Energy, Materials and Products at Nottingham Trent University

Reuse is not new. There are well-known social, economic and environmental benefits of reusing discarded items. Reuse has an important role to play in furthering resource efficiency, reflected by its place at the top of the waste hierarchy, above recycling. But it should be noted that reuse is not about waste, it is about products retaining their value and remaining in use in a safe condition, beyond their first owner.

A strong secondhand marketplace currently exists, with charity shops on most high streets, car boot sales and online auction sites popular with the general public, and regular TV shows focusing on both buying and selling at auctions. But reuse appears to be a practice that is mostly situational; with few people connecting reuse to environmental behaviour and values.

The car industry is a sector where reuse is the norm. We would not usually consider scrapping a car when we get to the point of purchasing a newer model. It is normal practice to trade in, sell, or even recycle cars at their end of life.

Cars are high-value items, but this approach should be extended to more products, particularly electronic items, which are often discarded before the end of their useful life.

IntheUK,weconsumeover1.4million tonnesofelectronicgoodsperyear.Thisisdueto advances in technology, new applications and an ever-increasingdemand,partlyduetothelinear ‘buy,use,dispose’modelthathasprevailedforso longinourthrowawaysociety.Butthisstyleof consumption is resource-intensive and we need tomovetowardsamorecirculareconomy, keepingresourcesinuseforaslongaspossible.

Optimum lifespan

The EU Circular Economy Package recognises the importance of extending product lifetimes, including repair and reuse as strategies to ensure products reach their optimum lifespan. If targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions are to be reached, then reuse needs to be promoted as part of a whole life cycle approach.

Due to the high cost of waste disposal, retailers have sought to develop sustainable solutions for items returned under warranty and through ‘take-back’ schemes. Through partnership agreements, many products previously destined for waste treatment are now diverted to reuse.

The benefits to manufacturers and retailers in the provision of convenient return routes include higher levels of consumer satisfaction and customer retention. Recycling, which was mainly carried out by environmentally conscious individuals until the late 1990s, is now normal behaviour, carried out by the majority of people. Reuse could likewise become more common if it was made easier to donate reusable items, and items were more likely to reach subsequent owners in a usable condition.

Reuse works best for relatively expensive or infrequently used products that retain value beyond their first use and can be transported without damage. However, there are many examples of small-scale reuse which could operate on a larger scale if networks were developed specifically for managing reusable waste items and recovering them in a way that meant they did not become damaged, retaining their reuse potential.

Providing incentives

Solutions to promote reuse include incentivising consumers to return products, perhaps using deposit schemes to provide motivation to ensure items are returned.

The possibility of amending current producer responsibility frameworks should be explored, in order to provide an incentive to enhance reuse alongside recycling, and to perhaps provide a funding mechanism to encourage this. Moving reusable items outside the waste stream, possibly even outside the responsibility of local government, should be explored as a way of ensuring reuseable items retain their reuse potential.

We need to make production and consumption patterns more sustainable. So, do we need a radical rethink on how we move unwanted, still useable items to the secondhand marketplace that prevents them from being damaged? Is there a case for changing our approach to producer responsibility and insisting that producers finance collection for reuse, and additionally, drive consumer choices for reuse, repair and remanufacture, while addressing the costs of recycling and disposal?

There are opportunities for producers, retailers, waste management companies and local authorities to make reuse habitual. While this requires changes to householder behaviour through raising awareness and involvement, it also requires investment in infrastructure and logistical operations.

Political and economic factors, as well as consumer attitudes and behaviour, also influence the attractiveness of reuse and the extent to which it can grow in the UK.

Addressing them nationally and at EU level offers the possibility of reducing the significant detrimental impacts on the environment of end- of-life electrical and electronic equipment. With so many other distractions due to Brexit, is it still necessary to say we need policy that leads us that way? The devolved governments are taking action, with Scotland publishing the Scottish Circular Economy Strategy, entitled Making Things Last, showing it is adopting forward- thinking waste and resource strategies and leaving England (again) watching, and thinking about following.

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