Case studies from the circular home

Nick Jeffries
Apr 30, 2018 · 8 min read

In 2001, as part of a contemporary art project called Break Down, 37-year old British artist Michael Landy undertook a detailed audit of all his belongings. The final count ran to 7227 individual items with an overall weight of 5.75 tonnes.

Compared to a typical US household, which contains on average 300,000 items, Michael Landy’s possessions seem quite frugal. Many of these items are quite idle — 80% are used less than once a month and in fact some are used for only a few minutes in their whole life. The remaining time they are stored away, gathering dust. From time to time, they might be packed and moved to another location. Storing all of this underutilised household equipment is the reason that 1 in 11 Americans need to rent ‘offsite storage’, the fastest growing real estate segment in the past few decades.

Not all household items accumulate in basements or are deposited in storage depots. As favourite possessions fall out of favour, they become clutter and then are transformed into ‘municipal solid waste’ (MSW), 70% of which ends up in the local landfill. Research by WRAP estimates that in the UK we throw away 1.6 million tonnes of ‘bulky waste’ each year, items that are too big to be put in a normal bin, equivalent to 23kg per person. WRAP estimates that at least a third of these discarded items are perfectly reusable, and over half reusable after only a minor repair.

Industries that design and deliver household products and services are inherently linear. Most products are barely used, have little or no material and component cycling and create huge volumes of waste. All of this contributes to a huge loss of value and significant environmental and social impacts in extracting more resources and making new products. What’s more, advances in industrial mass production have lowered costs, while the digital revolution has created the relentless hamster wheel of hardware upgrades. These are all issues that are set to amplify as the high consuming, global middle class swells by 2.5 billion in the next thirty years.

But if design and the digital revolution got us to where we are now, these two ‘enablers’ could also rescue us from our predicament, and could help declutter our lives.

There are signs of a shift to a system where household items are not used and disposed, but instead maintained, shared and re-used. The companies and projects described below are all pioneers on the journey to creating more circularity in our homes.

The Cases

Fat Lama: peer-2-peer sharing

Borrow stuff you need. Lend stuff you don’t’ — this is what greets visitors to Fat Lama’s website, a peer-to-peer sharing platform that allows you to list and make money from loaning out your infrequently used items. In exchange for a commission from each loan, Fat Lama provide £25,000 insurance as well as maintaining a lively digital ‘lending marketplace’.

Image: Joss Blériot

The platform offers a wide variety of equipment, but an emerging trend has been a high proportion of rental to the independent creative sector, not surprising as the entry level for purchasing this type of equipment is typically high. Top users can earn as much as £3000 per month, which shows how an innovative business model can create economic activity in idle assets and ‘redefine our relationship with stuff’.

Toronto Tool Library: community asset sharing and makerspaces

Not all sharing economy models are driven by economic gain. The Toronto Tool Library was established in 2012 and enables citizens donate and share their tools through one central location. Supported by a small yearly ‘subscription’ payment, community members gain through access to a 7000+ collection of high quality tools as well as machinery such as lathes and 3D printers. The other immediate benefit is that the space taken up in member’s basements and garages by seldom used tools is freed up, and can be put to more productive use.

One of the unexpected consequences has been the evolution from pure tool-lending to thriving ‘makerspaces’ in which individuals exchange skills and knowledge, creating an environment where young people can be trained and mentored. There are now three tool libraries in Toronto as well as a sharing depot lending out other household items such as sport gear and camping equipment. The continuing expansion of the scheme is not limited by the availability of tools or enthusiasm of members, rather by the access to a physical building. Toronto Tool Library’s 2015 partnership with one of the city’s conventional book libraries could be an indicate a way to overcome this obstacle.

Gerrard Street: how to relieve technology anxiety

Do you ever get frustrated how quickly a favourite new gadget can become quickly outdated through the relentless march of technology? Or worse still, when one day it suddenly stops working? Gerrard Street, a tech hardware startup from Holland, aims to address these issues that lead to frustration, expense and material waste. The company applies circular economy principles to the design and business model of its core product — high quality headphones.

A trip on public transport is enough to tell you that the premium headphone sector has exploded recently (worth $8.7billion in 2015). What you may not appreciate is that the sector also produces an estimated 15,000 tonnes of waste each year. Gerrard Street’s approach has been to design a modular headphone set, comprising durable components with mechanical connections that facilitate easy repairs and upgrades. Such a design means that 85% of components in ‘new’ products have been recovered, which reduces waste and creates a more resilient supply chain for manufacturing. The headphones are offered on a subscription model, making them affordable to a wider customer segment as well as relieving ‘upgrade’ anxiety.

Furnishare: circular furniture

In the past, big-ticket items like sofas could stay in one place for decades. The patterns and habits of modern living mean that these days furniture cycles much more rapidly. Drivers include a larger and more transient student body; shorter term work contracts leading to a more mobile workforce; the emergence of the ‘lifestyle’ industry (aka ‘fast furniture’), powered by computer aided design (CAD) and mass manufacturing, that compels us to undertake frequent ‘re-styles’. The result, according to the European Federation of Furniture Manufacturers is that 4% of municipal solid waste (MSW) in UK comprises discarded furniture, amounting to 300, 000 tonnes of perfectly reusable furniture that is either landfilled or incinerated each year. In the US, the EPA estimates this figure as 15 million tonnes per year.

Alpay Koralturk was one of these ‘highly mobile’ workers, moving apartment six times during his first eight years in New York. The hassle that Alpay experienced in constantly shuffling his possessions prompted him to explore the business case and stress-reducing benefits of a sharing economy business model for furniture. The result was Furnishare, an online marketplace launched in 2014 that allows high quality used furniture to be traded, either bought directly or offered as a subscription model. The benefits are that the ‘seller’ can earn revenue from the sale or rental rather than paying for disposal; while the ‘buyer’ can access high quality second hand items either as a straight sale or through a flexible rental. Furnishare takes a percentage of each transaction, to pay for logistics, cleaning, repairs, storage and making some profit. And of course there are environmental benefits through preservation of resources.

Replenish: eliminating plastic waste through better design

Take a look around your home and count how many plastic ‘dispenser’ bottles you own. Washing up liquid, hand wash, surface cleaner, shampoo, conditioner, shower gel and drink cordial to name but a few. Collectively these ‘fast-moving consumer goods’ make a significant contribution to the estimated 35 billion plastic bottles thrown away each year in the US.

Furthermore, as a sector the total loss in material value each year has been estimated as approximately $2.7 trillion. But these shocking figures were not the main reason that Jason Foster decided to set up Replenish. Jason’s motivation was based on the insight that 99% of the material content of commercial liquid detergent products are water and plastic, with only a tiny amount of the valuable ‘active ingredient’. Clearly this represents a huge opportunity to offer an alternative.

Image: Joss Blériot

Foster’s initial ambition was to create a multi-surface cleaner product that eliminated any human and environmental toxicity, packaged in a fully reusable container. In 2011, his efforts led to a gold certified Cradle to Cradle product. More recently, the company’s focus has shifted to the design of the bottle, with the aim of scaling up the reuse approach to the wider consumer goods sector. This culminated last year in the launch of Replenish 3.0, a ‘packaging platform’ that allows any company to convert to a refill system approach.

In Act Two of Break Down (2001), having completed an exhaustive three-month inventory, the artist systematically pulverised and shredded every single one of his possessions. At the end of this process all that was left was almost six tonnes of granulated rubbish. For Michael Landy, the meaning was clear: “if the whole world ends up with 7,227 things, then we won’t have a planet.”

This response is a bit extreme. The circular economy does not mean an end to owning stuff. For most people, owning possessions is a characteristic of the experience of being human. That said, in the intervening 17 years, the global population has increased by 1.4 billion and that, and consumption spending in fast-growing populations such as China has increased at a rate of 14% per year. We can’t go on owning and disposing of our ‘stuff’ in the same way.

So the circular economy aims, through better design, to keep valuable materials in use and capture more value from products and components. The final outcome should be improved access and affordability to all the comforts that we each love in our homes, but through a new relationship with resources that regenerates the wider economy, of which we are all a part.

So think first before you shred all your belongings. There are many better, more ‘circular’ ways to deal with your clutter.

Circulate News

News and thought-leadership on the circular economy

Nick Jeffries

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Waste is an error of imagination

Circulate News

News and thought-leadership on the circular economy

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