Too Good to Waste: How the Circular Economy Is Reshaping Consumption

By: Michael McQueen

Within a society driven by capitalist aims – efficiency, accumulation, profits – the endless innovation of new products is a worthy practice. Keeping consumers keen for new products is key, and so the clever marketing, regular new releases and planned obsolescence begin. After all, why would a customer buy a new product if they are satisfied with what they have?

Planned obsolescence involves the intentional design of a product to only last a certain amount of time before needing replacement. Many of us have had the conversation with a tech expert or electrician, where in response to a broken product we are told it would simply be easier or cheaper to buy a new one.  In the case of many electronics, appliances and everyday products, this business model is what keeps them coming.

Beyond environmentalists, such a mindset is totally alien and completely reprehensible to older generations who were raised on the ethos, ‘If it’s broken, you fix it, not throw it away’. Despite every individual and initiative responsibly aiming to donate old goods, recycle waste, buy second-hand, and reuse products and materials, these systems of planned obsolescence persist. With such systems in place, all efforts to reduce, reuse and recycle are in vain, as either way the customer will quickly require a new product.

While we often credit innovation and emerging tech as the solution to all our environmental problems and economic inequalities, it is all too easy to overlook the extreme amounts of waste it produces. Technology may be a great way of finding new ways to solve problems, but the planned obsolescence and endless accumulation encouraged by big tech companies is responsible for a disproportionate amount of our global waste.

The circular economy has widely been acknowledged as the way out of this model, advocating sharing, reusing and repairing in the face of endless production and planned obsolescence. Countless start-ups, business programs and public initiatives have been dedicated to the cause. Even Apple has trade in programs in place. However, the circular economy has encountered its own set of challenges, particularly in the field of tech as consumers are hesitant to actually recycle their old electronics, opting instead to store them away. The resulting problem is the need for manufacturing of new materials which is where much of the environmental damage takes place[1].

Despite our global push towards sustainable action, only 17.4% of e-waste was recycled in 2019 according to the UN. The rest of the world’s electronic leftovers, which in the same year weighed more than the Great Wall of China, ended up in dumps.[2] Far from the countries which are the culprits of most e-waste, these dumps are generally located in poorer nations where unusable electronic goods are illegally exported. Here, the products leak out toxic materials, contaminate water and food supplies, and waste the highly valuable metals contained inside.[3]

Regulations introduced in France this year require tech companies to publicise the repairability scores of their products, exposing the planned obsolescence systems in place within the companies. Under this new regulation, titled the French Repairability Index, manufacturers must publish the scores next to the prices of various electronics and appliances. Scores are determined according to five categories, including disassembly capabilities, repair documentation availability, spare part availability, spare part price and a product-specific category. Apple and Microsoft unsurprisingly yielded dismal scores[4].

In an outstanding vision of the circular economy working as it should, this year Lego announced their plans to get bricks made from recycled plastic bottles onto shelves within two years. The company has already made prototypes of the new bricks and are in the process of developing them by adding colour and ensuring they are just as good as the original bricks.[5]

Lego’s sustainability efforts don’t end there. For the last two years, Lego has been successfully running a program which encourages people to send in their unwanted Lego so that it can be donated to children’s non-profits. The program, which is aptly called Replay, accepts donations and goes on to clean, inspect and sort them so that the Lego can be passed on people and organisations who can give them a second life.[6]

Lego CEO Tim Brooks stated in relation to the program, ‘We know people don’t throw out Lego bricks’. According to Brooks, Lego’s products have always been designed to last several generations, and its new recycled plastic bricks will be no different. The company continues to emphasise products that are durable rather than biodegradable. Instead of building products that are cheap, breakable and destined for landfill, Lego hopes to continue creating products that can be used and inherited for generations.

It is only because of the durability of Lego products that programs like Replay, which fight both environmental problems and social inequalities, can exist. The webpage for Replay on the Lego website states in bold letters ‘We believe good toys should never go to waste’. This sentiment, coupled with the company’s consistent action, seems almost rebellious in the face of the planned obsolescence and waste that drives society’s consumerism.

Without this kind of responsible design and manufacturing of products that are made to last, the circular economy is simply walking in circles. Products that are designed well, using materials that are both durable and sustainable, are the best kind of products to hold up the circular economy. Lego leads with great example, with sustainably sourced, purposeful programs and toys that can be used, and used again.

[1] Roach, J 2021, ‘Recycling isn’t enough. Here’s what experts say will solve the e-waste crisis’, Digital Trends, 22 October.

[2] Roach, J 2021, ‘Recycling isn’t enough. Here’s what experts say will solve the e-waste crisis’, Digital Trends, 22 October.

[3] Malloy, K 2021, ‘UK on track to become Europe’s biggest e-waste contributor’, Resource, 21 October.

[4] Hirsh, S 2021, ‘Planned Obsolescence Exposed at Apple and Microsoft, in Light of New French Regulations’, Green Matters, 7 April.

[5] Espiner, T 2021, ‘Lego plans to sell bricks from recycled bottles in two years’, BBC News, 23 June.

[6] Capron, M & Lear, J 2019, ‘You can feel good about ditching your LEGO bricks thanks to this new program’, CNN, 8 October.

Article supplied with thanks to Michael McQueen.

About the Author: Michael is a trends forecaster, business strategist and award-winning conference speaker.

Feature image: Photo by Xavi Cabrera on Unsplash

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