What's the Difference Between a Circular and a Linear Economy? One Milimeter

11/07/2012 18:07 BST | Updated 10/09/2012 10:12 BST

Our economy has a basic structure: we dig things out of the ground, turn them into products that last from minutes to a few years at most, and then stick them back into the ground as landfill. This is hugely wasteful, of both resources and money. It's also terrible for the environment. The solution that Green Alliance is working towards is a circular economy - one which captures materials so that today's goods are remanufactured or reused to become tomorrow's goods, rather than landfill.

The BBC's environment analyst Roger Harrabin, who chaired our event to launch the Circular Economy Task Force last week, posed a great question about the practicality of getting to a circular economy: how do you make a mobile phone which can be disassembled and remanufactured so it fits into a circular economy?

A trend to design out repair

This isn't primarily a technical question. It reflects the fact that industrial design for fast moving consumer electronics has moved away from reparability toward fully integrated units which are nearly impossible to take apart. Apple is furthest ahead in this trend: the iPhone and iPad have always been sealed, making it very difficult to replace their batteries and limiting the lifetime of their products to around two years.

Apple's newest products, the Macbook Air and Retina Macbook Pro take this to a new level. To save one millimetre of screen thickness, they have glued the screen to the case. The result is that the company charges 50% more to replace the battery on these models compared to the previous ones. And this is far more fuss than being able to change a battery without having to send your laptop away.

The crucial millimetre between repair and landfill

But the new Nexus 7, a competitor to the iPad designed by Google, bucks this trend. It's a slick, attractive design but, as the technology repair website iFixit has shown, it's been designed to be repaired. As iFixit puts it:

"One millimetre. That's the difference in thickness between the 9.4 mm glued iPad and the 10.4 mm retaining-clipped Nexus. That's the difference between extending the life of your device through repair, as opposed to tossing it in a landfill."

The design difference is one millimetre, but the difference in mindset is enormous.

Both Apple and Google are highly profitable, innovative technology companies. Neither, I'd suggest, have designed their products with a circular economy in mind, but both could. Apple has optimised its design for sleek consumer appeal and ignored repair, reuse, and remanufacturing. Google has optimised for a more engineering-aware audience who might want to tinker with their tablet. The fact that it's compatible with a circular economy is an accidental benefit. The big question is how do we change the business model of these companies so they intentionally design their products for reuse, remanufacturing, and recovery?

The panel at the Task Force launch suggested some tentative answers, which ranged from the provocative to the pragmatic. One panellist said that waste is worse than theft and we should criminalise it; Nick Folland of Kingfisher suggested that B&Q will trial tool rental to reduce sales of single-use tools that end up as waste after a weekend DIY project. There were many other interesting suggestions made in the discussion, a video of which is available on Vimeo.