24 April 2024, 14:32
By Aldous Hicks Nov 20, 2019

Closing the furniture waste loop

The majority of the Western world is aware of recycling. People do their bit at home and at work, and try their best to dispose of their recyclables responsibly – yet this is where much of the process stops. However, change is coming, writes Aldous Hicks, and the furniture industry is going to have to come to terms with new approaches …

Recycling is big business. By 2020, the global recycling market is projected to reach £30b – nearly double its £18b value in 2015. 

Yet, despite our best intentions, very little value of recycling is realised – closer to 0% than 30%. Most products aren’t yet designed for easy disassembly or recycling  – large items of furniture and mattresses, for example, are highly likely to go straight to landfill, and instead, the costs of removing and disposing of products in an un-environmentally friendly way falls to consumers and taxpayers. 

Change is coming, albeit slowly. Governments are discussing legislation which should help progress us towards becoming a less wasteful society. 

So, how can the furniture industry, together with other manufacturing industries, adapt to and support these growing environmental pressures?

Achieving 100% closed-loop recycling

Currently, even when used materials are recycled, they tend to be made into lesser products. A plastic bottle, for example, may be processed into packaging materials, which are then disposed of in a landfill. So, even when recycling does happen, it often only delays the inevitable.

A truly green initiative would be to move towards a 100% closed-loop recycling system, whereby a recyclable product is transformed back into its original form. A plastic bottle would be remade into a plastic bottle, or a bed frame into another bed frame. A closed-loop recycling process would ensure we get the maximum amount of use out of any material, reducing the amount that ends up in landfill. 

While I think that in the next 20 years we will have a 100% closed-loop recycling system, we first need to change the way we view used materials – treating them not like waste, but like useful resources that can be reused and recycled. 

Achieving 100% closed-loop recycling, however, relies on manufacturers buying in recycled materials to use in new products, as well as designing products for easy de-manufacture.

The de-manufacturing economy 

I predict that within 10 years all manufacturers – including those in the furniture industry – will become responsible for the extended producer responsibility (EPR) of the products they manufacture. 

This means they’ll have to pay fees representing the real cost of landfill and the full environmental cost of raw material production. Product prices will also include the environmental costs accumulated during their production in order to incentivise more sustainable production practices, minimise waste, and ensure product longevity.

To minimise costs, manufacturers will de-manufacture used products into their raw material components, which will be used again for new products. When EPR environmental fees are factored in, these de-manufactured raw materials will potentially cost the same or less than virgin raw materials.

Within 20 years, I predict that there will be a closed-loop recyclability index (CLR) displayed on every product, indicating both the sustainability of the manufacturing process and the cash value of the packaging once recycled. Just like ingredient contents in food, the CLR will influence a consumer’s purchasing decision. 

Imagine going to a furniture store to buy a new bed and mattress. You narrow your choice down to two options, both equally attractive. The first option has a big red mark next on the CLR index, indicating that it uses virgin materials and cannot be easily recycled. The second option shows a big green tick on the CLR index, indicating that it uses 100% closed-loop materials and is fully recyclable. Which do you choose?

Now imagine that the first option costs more, as it includes the EPR fees. Even if you don’t care about the environment, you’re definitely buying the cheaper option now, right?

CLR index labels will help you make purchasing decisions based on what can and cannot be de-manufactured, as well as identifying products that support the de-manufacturing industry.

Technological innovations

A number of new technologies are currently in development that will help industrial and consumer recyclers, the de-manufacturing industry, and environmentally-conscious manufacturers. 

The first – and arguably most important – innovation we will see is high-purity recycling appliances for homes and businesses. This will help consumers take the first step towards closed-loop recycling and help the concept go mainstream.

With more products able to be recycled and more recycling happening in the home and in furniture stores/outlets, the de-manufacturing industry will need to find efficient ways to manage on-demand collection. On-demand services have improved in performance and cost, making it a realistic option for companies like Amazon and Uber. If we can apply the same technology and processes to on-demand recycling collection, we’ll take a big step towards a 100% closed-loop recycling system.

Finally, the rise of AI, machine learning and robotics will help manufacturers find new ways to construct products so that they can be easily de-manufactured and turned into products of equal value. 

Taken together, it’s easy to envision a world where all our beautiful and valuable and sustainiable used materials – from the smallest piece of packaging to the largest pieces of furniture – will be 100% closed-loop recycled.

Aldous Hicks is the CEO and co-founder of ReCircle Recycling, which aims to address the problem of contamination through its patented recycling appliance, ReCircle, which aims to help businesses make purchasing decisions which take into account a product’s lifecycle assessment, and closed-loop recyclability.

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