Published 2018-05-24This post is also available in Swedish
Seeking visibility outside academia
Today’s consumption patterns are unsustainable in the long run. Few challenge this — not even the companies that live on selling. The Mistra REES research programme therefore seeks to help manufacturing companies become more resource-efficient and, at the same time, show customers that buying solutions is very often better, both economically and environmentally, than purchasing products.
Product durability is a two-sided coin. On one side, there is a light bulb at the Livermore–Pleasanton Fire Station in California, USA. Switched on in 1901, it still works, which means that it has now been on for more than a million hours. This fact is so unique that the bulb has its own website where anyone who wants to can check whether it is still shining.
On the other side of the coin, there is a story that is much more recent, but better known because it affects more people. This is the disclosure that an iPhone works worse after a couple of years — not because the phone itself is worn out, but because Apple has deliberately programmed it in a way that makes it slow down when the phone’s battery has lost some of its capacity. Although Apple claims that it is to protect the processor and extend its lifespan, this planned obsolescence can make us consumers switch to a new mobile phone more often than necessary.
These two stories are relevant to the Mistra REES (Resource-Efficient and Effective Solutions) research programme. First, they show that the life of a product is more a matter of conscious choice than of technical constraints. Second, they show that today’s business models tempt us consumers to shop more often than necessary, leading to more severe environmental and resource problems.
At the same time, there is no clear answer as to what is right and proper. The light bulb that illuminates the California fire station is a technical wonder, but is still not an option today, since energy consumption, too, is also a component to be included in assessment of a product’s overall impact.
‘Life-cycle cost is an important parameter, so in some circumstances it may be better to replace products that work. — an older light bulb for an LED version, for example, because it dramatically reduces energy consumption,’ says Mattias Lindahl, Associate Professor of Ecodesign and Product Service Systems and Programme Director of Mistra REES.
Lindahl performed his own thorough calculation of the life cycle costs of various car models when he last bought a new one. To do so, he had to look beyond the price tag on the car and include service, spare parts, petrol costs and insurance. There are probably few of us who really want to know the cost per kilometre he arrived at.
One drawback of mobile phones, in particular, is that many of us buy a new one every other year, because telecom operators have created a business model that makes it feel both easy and cheap. Whether we need or even request the latest features is another matter.
‘Now the technology of mobiles is beginning to mature, so there should be prospects for changing the business model. This is where our programme comes in, with ideas about how phones could be designed and produced to reduce total resource utilisation. Or how they could be remanufactured, which may mean that phones are repaired and updated, thus getting a longer life.’
The programme is now just over halfway through the four-year investment. During this time, seven different projects, ranging from design and business models to regulatory frameworks, have been started.
‘It’s been a challenge to get good collaboration between 3 universities, masses of researchers, 15 companies and various other stakeholders, but right now everything’s working well and we’re ahead of schedule. We’ve also achieved better research results than we’d expected, which means several new players are keen to join us.’
In most large Swedish companies, there is awareness that increased resource efficiency is needed. There is also an understanding that the best product they can sell is the one they need not produce and, instead, offer as a service.
It is not quite this simple for smaller companies. They are often stuck in a system where they cannot take the initiative themselves; their role is often reduced to delivering predetermined components to the big companies.
‘So it’s important for the major players to step up and show how important these issues are. If they do, their commitment will trickle down to the smaller companies,’ says Jan-Eric Sundgren, Chair of Mistra REES.
Sundgren, who has experience of being both a researcher and Vice-Chancellor of Chalmers University of Technology, as well as Senior Manager at AB Volvo, has chosen to be involved in the programme because, as he explains it, he believes that we must move towards a circular economy.
One of the challenges that needs addressing is how the insights and knowledge of sustainability at management level can be disseminated throughout the entire value chain.
‘It will take time. But for the knowledge that’s available to be useful, we researchers must become better at sharing our experience. Today, we’re often too focused on publishing in scientific journals, so our results don’t always reach those who could benefit from the knowledge. The programme therefore has a stated goal that we must also have communication that reaches people outside the research community,’ Lindahl says.
He and his colleagues in the programme have therefore, during the spring, featured both on television and in magazines to report on their research, the consequences of consumption and the circular economy. They have, for example, appeared in the PLUS programme on Sveriges Television (SVT), the Swedish public-service television company.
Other tasks for Mistra REES are to promote international standards for a circular economy and find ways to increase recycling without thereby taking the risk of getting into a situation in which the amount of recycled waste increases, but its value decreases.
‘To succeed, we must bring about a system where we reuse and recycle at product and component levels. The problem is that we have a well-functioning system for delivering products, but basically no effective solutions for returning used products.’
Sundgren highlights how big the profits could be if, for example, the engines and gearboxes of goods vehicles were remanufactured.
‘Reconditioning a truck engine is an effective way to reduce resource use, while access to replacement engines contributes to a more efficient system. But to function not only technically but also in practice, working business models must be created. These are changes that can’t be driven by idealism.’
However, research shows that transitions to a more circular approach are often not only environmentally but also economically profitable. For example, a remanufactured dishwasher uses 44 per cent less energy over its life, compared with producing a new one. A remanufactured gearbox reduces total carbon dioxide emissions by 34 per cent.
Both Lindahl and Sundgren agree that a more resource-efficient society requires our creation of systems that do not leak resources at every stage.
‘Today there is resource leakage when we handle raw materials, in the design stage and the manufacturing process, but also when it comes to the users and how materials are recirculated. To solve these challenges, we require both technology and increased understanding of how complex the issue is,’ Lindahl says.
If the vision is realised, he believes, the benefit will be better solutions that in turn make customers happy, which helps companies make more money. And the focus will be on developing, manufacturing and providing sustainable services instead of selling products.
‘There are conflicts that need to be resolved, admittedly, but basically it’s a win-win situation. In the long run, everyone gains from a more circular economy.’
Although Mistra REES has just over a year left of its programme period, Lindahl and Sundgren are already looking forward to a new programme period.
‘We’re now reviewing the work we’ve done so that we can shortly begin formulating an application for a programme extension. In industry there is keen interest; in particular, they want to continue studying the link between products, services and design, on the one hand, and regulations and business models on the other,’ Lindahl says.
However, he is self-critical on one issue.
‘Although our researchers are listed among the best in the world in our area, we’re not so skilled at highlighting what we can do.’
But now he has the chance. At the end of May, Mistra REES will host the CIRP (International Academy for Production Engineering) IPS² (Industrial Product-Service Systems) International Conference. The conference is being held for the 10th time, and researchers will gather from all over the world to discuss issues related to resource efficiency.
Ken Webster is the keynote speaker at the conference, which is expected to attract around 150 participants. He is research director at Ellen MacArthur Foundation and author of the book The Circular Economy: A Wealth of Flows.
Webster will also take part in a Spring School for researchers, held in parallel with the conference.
The conference will last for three days and, on the first, the emphasis will be on industry, the idea being that the participating researchers will thereby gain insights into what industry wants and what support it needs from academia.
Text: Per Westergård
Facts about Mistra REES
The mission of Mistra REES is to develop principles, methods and guidelines to make resource-efficient products, services and business models possible. Another goal is to propose policy instruments and policy packages conducive to the transformation towards a more circular economy.
In the programme, Linköping University, Chalmers University of Technology and Lund University are collaborating with 15 companies, 2 municipalities and 2 non-profit organisations. The entire research initiative is based on 7 different projects.
The hope is that Mistra REES will move cutting-edge research in the circular economy forward and mould a new generation of Swedish interdisciplinary researchers and practitioners, including the nine PhD and master’s students participating in the programme.
If you wish to follow the ’bulbcam’ at the California Fire Station, you can do so here.
If you would like to see Lindahl in SVT’s Plus programme (in Swedish), you can watch the beginning here.