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Make the ‘inner loop’ of reuse the first priority

17th June 2014 Posted by

In articulating what a circular economy should look like, the latest thinking is that it is not just about recycling, where end-of-use articles and products are destroyed in order to recover the materials contained in them. There is a so-called ‘inner loop’ of reuse that should be prioritised first.

Products that have come to the end of their ‘first’ life should be repaired or refurbished and put back into productive use. The Local Government Association’s report Routes to Reuse (March 2014) estimates that England disposes of almost 615,000 tonnes of reusable textiles, waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) and furniture each year, with a total notional resale value of £375 million if this material were reused instead.

But we should not confuse financial value with resource savings. A paper published in 20061 estimated that, taking WEEE as an example, even if 100 per cent of domestic products were reused, the saving in raw material and energy use would amount to less than one per cent. Why might this be so?

The calculation rests crucially on the proportion of the total material stock used in a particular sector. UK figures are scarce but, taking as an example the flow of copper through the economy of the US state of Connecticut, five per cent of the total usage is in all domestic equipment, including WEEE, according to a study by the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies2. Assuming 100 per cent capture of the products at end-of-life and 100 per cent reuse with no wastage, it means a resource saving for virgin copper of five per cent.

In general terms, the study found that a 25 per cent reduction in resource consumption could be achieved either by increasing WEEE recycling efficiency by five per cent (without reuse) or by increasing WEEE reuse by 85 per cent. In other words, on a like-for-like basis, recycling was generally more efficient for saving virgin raw materials than was reuse, though the precise proportions varied by product type.

What might this mean for the UK? Firstly, we do not have material flow information to the level of detail required for this type of calculation. In effect, we are flying blind when we make decisions from a resource conservation standpoint as to which products should be reused, and which recycled.

Secondly, the Yale study found that, while as an input domestic equipment only consumed five per cent of the total stock (less in WEEE), as an output domestic WEEE contained 15 per cent of the total copper discarded after use.

Clearly, improving the capture rate of domestic WEEE is extremely important, whether we reuse it to (mainly) capture value or we recycle it to (mainly) conserve resources.

1 Truttmann, and Rechberger: Contribution to resource conservation by reuse of electrical and electronic household appliances; Resources, Conservation & Recycling, Vol 48, pp249 – 262.

2 Rauch, Eckelman and Gordon: Part A: In-Use Stocks of Copper in the State of Connecticut, USA. Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, 2007

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