Extending product life to build a circular economy

Tools to repair products
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"Product life extension" is a phrase you may have been hearing more of lately as one part of the multifaceted solutions to create a circular economy. It’s a term that describes how long a product or item can be used for, with the ultimate goal of maximizing any given product’s "utilization" rate and duration.

Why is keeping our products and materials "in-use" for a longer duration so important?

Consider that 26 billion pounds of clothing and consumer products end up in a landfill each year, with estimates that 95 percent of that amount could be re-used or recycled. Not to mention that it takes 2,700 liters of water to produce enough cotton to make one cotton shirt. 

Every time we throw away a product, we essentially also are losing all of the energy and resources that went into its production. And although recycling a product is sometimes an option, reuse and repair rank much higher than recycling in terms of stronger environmental impact. (Not to say that recycling isn’t important — it is usually much better than landfill because we are not losing all the material value. But when we consider that many of our products are not designed to be recycled, the amount of energy that is needed to fully recycle a material sometimes can be quite high.)

So what does product life extension look like in real life? It’s actually not a new concept. Every thrift store and secondhand shop you see has been providing product-life-extension solutions for years. (The first Goodwill opened in 1865.) Besides exploring options for ensuring the longevity and use of products, decreasing our reliance on single-use items is also an option to further product life.

Below are nine companies and organizations providing innovative solutions in the product life extension space.

Personal care

Disposable razors are a common consumer hygiene product that many of us use. Unfortunately, not only are you throwing away plastic with every use, but also the metal, the plastic packaging and the money you spent on your purchase. Razor company Albatross Razors provides stainless steel razors and replacement blades, while also offering a take-back program for all of their blades, because not all municipal recycling systems can recover them.

"My motivation to start Albatross originated through my passion for sailing, as this opened my eyes to the incredible scope of the plastic pollution crisis,” says Albatross Razors founder Andrew Lacenere. "We view our role at Albatross as twofold: the 'educator 'and the 'innovator.' Our company's mission is to make sustainability mainstream, and a big part of that is to redesign the way we consume."

In addition, there haven’t been many studies done on the environmental footprint of disposing of women’s feminine products. However, knowing that diapers are estimated to last 500 years in landfill does not bode well for their footprint.

Several companies are trying to provide alternative solutions to a product that has only had a single use option by providing reusable products. The menstrual product company Anigan produces the U.S.-manufactured EvaCup, a reusable menstrual cup; U.K.-based, Kickstarter-ed startup DAME has a reusable tampon applicator; and feminine hygiene company THINX provides washable period underwear.

Furniture

While there’s been an informal market for secondhand furniture via Craigslist and eBay, these two companies are trying to make the used furniture buying process as effortless as possible. 

AptDeco serves New York City and surrounding areas including New Jersey, Long Island, Connecticut and Westchester. Focused on the consumer market, the platform tackles the pain point of pick-up and delivery. Listing a product on its site is free, with no charge unless you get a sale. The origin story of AptDeco came from the founding team, thinking: "There must be a way to buy or sell furniture without the scams, hassles and creepy people going into your apartment!"

Davies Office has been operating since 1948, and focuses on the corporate office space — a hidden waste stream. According to EPA estimates, up to 8.5 million tons of office assets wind up in landfills a year. Davies Office offers a full range of office planning services to help offices update their looks with the lowest environmental footprint and cost. Past clients have included FedEx, Colgate and Save the Children.

Repair

We can’t talk about product life extension without mentioning repair. Unfortunately, within the consumer electronics space, many brands have been stealthily making it more difficult for us to repair our products or sell them secondhand by designing in planned obsolescence.

Whether by limiting the ability of third parties to sell secondhand electronics — such as in the recent case of Apple’s deal with Amazon, requiring the need for specialized tools to open your phone or laptop, or popularizing the false idea that repairing your item would void your warranty — some brands have been waging battles against our right to repair. It’s become so ingrained that many of us don’t think of repair as an option.

However, these organizations are trying to change that mindset and educate consumers. 

BackMarket is an online seller of repaired and refurbished electronics, headquartered in Paris, that raised $48 million last year in VC funding. It focuses on keeping electronics out of landfill for longer. Its motto? "We challenge a market that has not changed in decades. We dream big, and believe that one day, circular and re-use will be a paradigm nobody can ignore."

iFixit is an online wikisite that acts as a free repository for users to share repair manuals they’ve authored as well as tips and tools needed to repair items. iFixit originated from a dorm room in 2003 and now hosts almost 49,000 free manuals for 13,000 devices. The mission of iFixit is to make repair less daunting and their business model relies on sales of toolkits designed especially for the repair of consumer electronics.

Finally, the Repair Association has been advocating for the right to repair since 2013. While the association originated as an industry group to represent businesses in the repair and reuse of technology, according to its website, the group has expanded into a consumer rights group fighting for consumers’ right to:

Information: The documentation, software, and legal ability we need to repair our own products — or choose someone we trust to do it for us.

Parts and tools: Fair access to service parts and tools, including diagnostics.

Unlocking for repair and reuse: We should be able to unlock and modify the software and firmware that is required to operate our products.

Unencumbered resale: We should be able resell our products (including the software needed to operate them).

Repairable products: Designers should integrate design for repair and recycling principles into product development.

Says the executive director of the Repair Association, Gay Gordon-Byrne, "While many companies promote the idea that people want new products as quickly as possible, we find the opposite is the case.  When things break — people search first for repair, and when they find repair too costly, or unavailable, they return to the market for new. Proof is in the internet search traffic for spare parts and instructions at sites such as iFixit, the traffic on YouTube videos and the enthusiastic support from consumers for the 'Right to Repair.'"

In the future, expect to see the growth of more businesses delivering creative solutions for extending product life. They bring not just cost savings to their customers, but also environmental credibility. Already, used, repaired and refurbished products have become more socially acceptable or in the case of fashion, in demand. Indeed, the overall resale market for is expected to hit $41 billion by 2022, far outpacing growth rates from traditional retail.