Remanufacturing – the missing link in recycling (by Andy Tomkins)
By Andy Tomkins, Canon EMEA Sustainability Engagement Manager (www.Canon-CNA.com).
We are all making significant changes to the way we live to reduce our impact on the environment. The products we use, how we travel and even what we eat are all choices that need to be made with sustainability in mind. As we celebrate World Environment Day, we must raise public awareness of the need to preserve and improve the environment.
While we as individuals should all do our part, of course, change must largely be driven by governments and organizations. Thanks to the Green Deal, in 2019 individual nation states and the companies operating within them are obliged to step up the fight against climate change and to fulfill the EU’s promise to become the first climate-neutral continent by 2050.
From a company perspective, there are a variety of ways and new approaches that can be used to work towards this goal. And of course, the industry a company operates in also determines the areas of investment, research and innovation it will focus on to reduce its carbon emissions in order to become a carbon neutral society.
However, one of the simplest approaches has been defined by the phrase “reduce, reuse, recycle”. As a theoretical hierarchy, it is easily applied to consumer habits and business processes. Reduce activities that have a negative impact on the environment if you can. If this is not possible, consider how you could reuse products or materials. Otherwise, recycle as much as possible to ensure nothing goes to waste.
Many companies and individuals are making active efforts to reduce environmental impacts, particularly by adapting to the concept of the circular economy, which in some ways formalizes the “reduce, reuse, recycle” hierarchy. But while estimates say the widespread adoption of circular economy practices in Europe could halve carbon emissions2 emissions by 2030 (https://bit.ly/38RVKAc), no matter how hard we try to reduce our impact on the environment or reuse things, there will always be a consumer demand for new, high-quality products.
While recycling can help ensure that materials from old products are reused where possible, recovering these materials takes a significant amount of time, money and energy. This is a particular challenge in the technology industry, according to figures from the European Environment Agency (https://bit.ly/3x7KVlB), showing that the recycling of e-waste lags significantly behind packaging and household waste.
That missing link in the chain is remanufacturing – a process that yields better quality products than resale or simple refurbishment, while in many situations it is more efficient and economically viable than recycling. It’s an approach that innovative manufacturers are looking at closely, and if scaled, it could help us make the changes we need to protect the environment.
What is remanufacturing?
Buying things second hand can often be an environmentally conscious choice. It’s cheaper than buying new and seen as good for the planet. In cases like vintage clothing, this can also be an important cultural choice. When quality is a priority in a purchasing decision, second hand can often be seen as the inferior option.
This is most prevalent when it comes to technology, where performance is key. Even though second-hand buying is still common and refurbished products (old devices that have been slightly repaired) help to solve the quality problem, we are generally still interested in having something new and shiny that we know know that it works optimally.
This is where remanufacturing comes into play. Rather than just taking used equipment back and giving it a new coat of paint so it lasts a little longer, Remanufacturing takes used equipment and rebuilds it to make it work like a new product.
Remanufacturing improves on refurbishment through its focus on performance and extensive testing, ensuring consumers are receiving an essentially new product, rather than simply extending the life of an existing product.
While the exact process varies by device, the goal is to keep as much in the old device as possible while replacing key components to ensure high performance – it could mean keeping an old product’s body and electrical replace internal components or take out physical parts of the device that have worn out over time and need to be replaced.
By preserving the old equipment as much as possible, remanufacturing offers a major advantage over recycling by reducing the time and energy required to recover and process materials for use in the manufacture of new products. Combined with the high performance it offers, it helps to meet consumer demand for new, high-quality technology while limiting the impact on the environment.
Reconstruct the future
Beyond the environmental benefits, remanufacturing also has great economic potential. It can create new revenue streams for companies that reduce costs associated with sourcing new raw materials or recycling old raw materials, while appealing to consumers who are willing to pay for products that are both environmentally friendly and of high quality.
If so, why isn’t remanufacturing more common? The printing industry leads the way, with both ink cartridges and office printers often subject to the process, but large-scale remanufacturing across the tech sector seems a long way off.
There are several reasons for this, one of the most important being our approach to product design. While many manufacturers have started to think more about how to make their products more easily recyclable, most still don’t consider remanufacturing.
This requires a lot of planning and innovation, as it’s not just about making products recyclable or repairable – it needs careful thought about which parts of the product need to be made durable and which need to be replaced, whether assembly can be automated, and even how products can be returned for reprocessing. Companies must be willing to invest in, and innovate in, new manufacturing processes and operations if they want to reap the environmental and economic benefits of remanufacturing.
But perhaps the greatest challenge is that it is poorly understood, if at all. Educating consumers about the difference between a refurbished and refurbished device is key to overcoming the hesitancy of a ‘second hand’ purchase. At the same time, there is a clear need for more attention and encouragement from governments and regulators to make remanufacturing an industry practice.
Remanufacturing is one of many ways we can help build a better future for our planet, but one that businesses, governments and consumers alike should be more aware of and invest in to help grow and thrive.
Distributed by APO Group on behalf of Canon Central and North Africa (CCNA).
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