Imagine a new innovation in portable electronic technology. With this new gadget, you can speak to your friends and family, no matter how far away they are. This device – a “telephone” – is cheap, despite the minor blessings of the Machine God contained within, and just about anyone can afford one.
There’s one issue. Once the battery runs down, which it will after a few hours or a few days, you have to throw away the phone and buy a new one. There’s no way to recharge it or repair it or refurbish it. In the bin it goes.
You see, they’re so cheap and disposable that some folk don’t even put them in the bin – they get chucked over the shoulder just wherever someone happens to be standing when the device dies. Everywhere you walk these days, you can see dead single-use phones just lying on the street.
Is this in any way an acceptable way to treat what is, at its heart, a complex piece of electronic equipment?
Of course, we’re not doing this with mobile phones but we are seeing high profile news around the waste and litter being created by disposable, single-use vaping devices, to the point where it is almost certain that the Scottish Government will pass some regulations or legislation in the near future limiting or banning their use in Scotland (though I suspect yet another fight over the UK Internal Market Act may loom in the case of an outright ban…).
I’m not going to argue around the health merits or demerits of these devices and how they relate to smoking or non-disposable vaping (though see the article last week from Robin around decriminalisation of drugs, addiction and the social causes lying unaddressed beneath them) but I will focus strictly on the material and waste aspects of what is one of the most egregious examples of linear economy thinking impacting our planet.
And make no mistake. These are devices that are as complex as a mobile phone in all ways other than scale. They contain lithium batteries and electronic chips. In fact, in some cases the batteries are actually inherently rechargeable (they were likely designed as a general purpose battery and just bought off-the-shelf by the vape manufacturer, rather than being designed specifically for the vape) but the vape itself has had special effort put into its design to ensure that they can’t be recharged. They are not disposable because of some inherent engineering limit that they declined to overcome compared to the rechargeable variety. They had to be intentional designed to place that limit on them. To see more, you can watch various “tear-down” videos of the tech such as this one (Note: the video does depict the actual use of the device but please don’t take that as an endorsement by me of that behaviour – legal or otherwise):
I’m very supportive of the Scottish Government’s decision to take on this problem but I see in their response a problem of linear economy thinking that still exists in there – despite having an actual Minister for the Circular Economy producing regulations against these devices.
The reason that regulations are being considered here is that the “litter on the streets” problem made it to the news headlines and started to be raised by voters. Politicians took it up as a cause to champion, meaning that the Scottish Government had to respond. It now looks likely that they will respond and make this problem go away.
But are they actually fixing the problem?
What happens when the next disposable electronic device starts littering the streets? Maybe it is disposable phones. Or coffee cup warmers. Or something else that I can’t imagine that somehow becomes a fad. Will that become a sufficiently bad headline to create a political problem worthy of being solved too? Or will it be ignored as not worth the hassle?
Will fixing that product fix the actual problem?
You see, as supportive as I am of regulations around disposable vapes, I don’t think it does fix the actual problem of us still maintaining a linear economy instead of a Circular one and this isn’t a problem that can be fixed one product at a time.
The Circular Economy is based on the principle that we should minimise the amount of resources that enter the economy, minimise how much leaves it and ensure that the resources that are in the economy are used and reused as much as possible. It’s about far more than merely “recycling” our “waste” but cuts across every aspect of how we produce, use and dispose of resources. For a brief summary, you can watch my presentations of the Circular Economy that I gave to the 2021 Scottish Climate Assembly here:
The strongest and first principle of transitioning to the Circular Economy is Product Design. Think about every single product you’ve ever bought or interacted with. Does it fit with Circular Economy principles? It probably doesn’t, but can it be redesigned to do so? What would it look like if it does?
Again, I’m not going into the health impacts of vapes (which might well be another angle to tackle within the Green New Deal) but if they exist as a product, how can they exist in a Circular Economy? It absolutely wouldn’t involve disposable electronics. They wouldn’t be made of oil-derived plastics. They would be rechargeable. They’d be repairable. Their components could be removed and used in other devices. The producer of the vape would be fully responsible for all stages of the life cycle of the device – including final end-of-life processes. There would be nothing called “waste”.
The same goes for that hypothetical disposable phone. A Circular Economy phone might look more like the “Fairphone” which is based on a modular and highly repairable design.
In the Circular Economy, we wouldn’t need the Scottish Government to legislate and regulate against disposable vapes because they would have never entered our Circular Economy in the first place.
I most recently encountered this problem of symptomatic rather than solution-based thinking in the Government’s consultation on banning peat compost. Again, a policy I agree with but as I said in our reply, we have to think not about responding to a particular headline around the environmental impact of peat extraction but about how that resource use fits or does not fit into the Circular Economy. The result is the same – peat extraction is not a Circular process and therefore should be reduced, eliminated and then banned – but we’re getting to that same shared goal via a much more coherent and strategic process. The same will go for the Deposit Return Scheme whenever someone is brave enough to call both the Scottish and UK plans insufficient and to design one that is fit for purpose. It’s not enough to have an argument over whether or not glass is recycled in the scheme; we need to do what they do in other European countries which is to do some Product Design, standardise our glass packaging and re-use it until it breaks and has to be recycled. I will know that the DRS is working in Scotland when I buy or am served a drink in a glass contained that is covered in scuff marks from having gone through the reuse process a dozen times.
And the same goes for policies such as housing where I fully support efforts to bring home energy efficiency up to Passive standards but I’m left asking why we’re not doing the same with public and non-domestic buildings (see Kaitlin’s article this week for more on that), why the proposed legislation doesn’t include carbon accounting in the construction of buildings and why we’re not talking about material reuse targets in our buildings and designing them to be repaired throughout their lifetimes and then, at the end, dismantled rather than demolished?
Once we have agreed to the principle that our economy must transition from a linear to a Circular one (which the Scottish Government has already done) it is imperative that we consider all legislation and product regulations that should be impacted by it. The current proposed Circular Economy Bill doesn’t do this. Again, I don’t disagree with any of its policies and think they’re all individually good but that’s also the problem. Collectively, they don’t go nearly far enough and in some cases do approach the problem from the wrong angle such as the desire for higher recycling targets (in a true Circular Economy, the target for recycling should be as low as possible and should decline as materials stay in the Circles for longer and are mostly composted when they come out – recycling is the first response to failure to stay in the Circle).
Eliminating the concept of “single-use electronics” via a ban on disposable vapes is undoubtedly a good thing and can’t come soon enough but I worry that we’re still stuck in the mode of single-use policies when we should be looking at the underlying principles and problems and treating them rather than the symptoms. I’ll know we’re in a Circular Economy when I look at the policies regulating the products around me and don’t have to think “How could this be designed to fit better?”