Deconstructing our consumerism
As a qualified engineer, the good old British taxpayer spent a small fortune teaching me how to make things, but not a penny teaching me how to unmake things. I can only assume that the vast majority of my engineers of my generation and earlier are in the same boat – the topic of disassembly just never raised its head. And I think it shows, whether in bonded paper/plastic disposable coffee cups or any of the 1.5billion mobile phones purchased globally.
If, as I constantly preach, demand is the driving force for the Circular Economy, then the biggest brake on the loop is disassembly. How do we design modern products to not only be bloody good, durable products, but to easily dismantled into component materials for recycling?
Anybody who has been to a recycling facility will probably have been shocked by the almost Victorian nature of many processes: whether the dystopian brutality of a hammer mill or the Dickensian picking lines of people each grabbing one type of material off a conveyor belt of our consumer detritus and chucking it in a skip. And anything more complex tends to get shipped overseas to take advantage of cheap labour (and a laissez-faire attitude to health & safety and environmental protection).
At the North East Recycling Forum Annual Conference on Tuesday, I asked a representative of one of the big waste management companies what technology was coming over the horizon. He reeled off a list of exciting sounding technologies including improved optical sorting of mixed plastics and even RFID technology for more valuable parts.
Apple has taken automation a step further with ‘Daisy’, a robot which can deconstruct 9 different types of iPhone at the rate of 200 per hour, freezing glues to separate parts and punching out screws at the rate of 1 per second with robot arms. It would take 125 Daisies to cover Apple’s annual production, but that doesn’t seem a ridiculous number to me. I suspect it would come down if iPhones were actually designed for disassembly.
The holy grail of deconstruction is active disassembly where thermally reversible adhesives or smart plastic screws are used to bond incompatible materials – these release their hold when a certain temperature is reached. Combined with clever modular design and the sorting technologies mentioned above, these technologies hold the promise of products which willingly give up their value in seconds when zapped with a precision laser. They’ve been proven in theory for some time, but their day has yet to come in practice.
As an engineer/Sustainability-bod hybrid, I find all this innovation as exciting, if not more so, than making stuff in the first place. Let’s see more of it!