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Repurposing with a purpose
How many R's in sustainability? Read on...
We’ve commented in past posts, in as many words at least, that it might be a good idea if the various slogan-isers and infographic-ers of the green economy got their collective heads together to decide on a consensus version of the ‘7Rs of Sustainability’.
Recycle is omnipresent, of course, and there are plenty of case studies to draw on. Biffa, for example, has its A to Z of recycling and has recently invested in PET recovery, with a new plant near Washington in the historic County of Durham adding yet more grunt to its North East plastics recycling value chain.
Reuse is a regular feature too and one of the charge leaders here is IKEA, with its Buyback and Resell scheme. Further, IKEA tells us it’s aiming to become a circular business by 2030 and has produced a handy Circular Product Design Guide, with Design for Repair, Remanufacture and Recyclability among its key principles. Ah, some more of those R’s, we see.
After that, though, it becomes a veritable R jungle. Rethink, Refuse (is that the English or the American version?), Reduce, Rot, Redesign, Reduce, Renovate, Recover, Remove, Refill, Replant and even Regift, if that’s not considered Rude. We’re sure we could add a few more.
We’d normally add a graphic here, to break up the text and add some visual interest. But there are so many versions of the 7R wheel of fortune that any one example just wouldn’t be representative. So, instead we’ll bring in a rather nice image of a no doubt very expensive kintsugi (金継ぎ) piece, which we’ll come back to later.
Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Butterly Diagram, which we and many others would consider the definitive visualisation of the Circular Economy, doesn’t get into too much of a fixation on the letter R, although there are a few examples in there, with Recycle – as we all know (or at least should) - as the equivalent of sarcasm in humour, the lowest form. Share occupies the virtuous inner circle and many commentators including Forbes are assigning increasing numbers of column inches to the sharing economy beyond the obvious E-scooter and E-bicycle examples.
We note also that the least wicked circle in the MacArthur Butterfly is shared with Maintain/Prolong. Some, we feel, may confuse this with Repair. But no, any maintenance technician will tell you that preventive and, increasingly, predictive and condition-based maintenance is much preferred over waiting to fix it when it breaks. As many of our readers will know, the principle of involving operators in the maintenance process has been well-established for many years in Lean Production and Total Productive Maintenance (TPM), and it’s interesting to note that TPM is embedded in the guidance given to Tesla owners. In keeping with the present day, of course, there’s an app for it.
Not that we’re necessarily knocking repair, mind. The Chartered Institution of Wastes Management (CIWM) is championing repair, together with reuse and remanufacture, big time, estimating in its recent (March 2023) paper that if every household in the UK sends 2 items per year to one of these three Rs, we could be looking at over 140,000 tonnes of non-recycled stuff that, depending on what type of stuff it is, could then generate new jobs along these sort of lines:
Image: TGE from CIWM
But here’s an R we purposefully haven’t used yet in this post and to which we’ve been giving a little recent thought. The word is Repurpose. It does appear as an R on some of the Sustainability wheels of fortune, but commonly-cited repurposing examples tend to be a little, shall we say, quirky – like the ones we show below from Etsy that accompany more garish items such as old vinyl records, melted and repurposed as fruit bowls that we couldn’t bring ourselves to show here.
Repurpose doesn’t make an appearance in the MacArthur Butterfly, but it could be argued as being the set containing – in increasing order of MacArthurian wickedness – Reuse (mentioned earlier) and Refurbish. We’ll talk more about those in a minute, but for now let us opine that the Etsy pieces shown above do at least illustrate some of the skills we might find are needed for repurposing. Creativity and thinking outside the box; resourcefulness; adaptability, patience and attention to detail; handcrafting skills and proficiency with tools; problem solving, conceptualisation, design sense and ability to spot trends; knowledge of materials; and, of course, environmental awareness to drive what others may think is not really worth the effort. All green skills, perhaps.
Outside the quirkiness, repurposing does have some heavy-duty applications. Repurposing of existing oil and gas infrastructure, and even fields, for transportation and storage of CO2 is seen as a way of reducing risk in many carbon capture projects around the world: one example is the repurposing of infrastructure for Storegga’s Acorn project in Scotland, which is progressing through its phases. Another example is one we spotted earlier in the summer about South Africa planning to repurpose coal-fired power stations as renewable energy hubs; goodness knows South Africa really needs some good news about its energy situation.
Architectural repurposing tends not to use the R-word as much as its own term that aligns with the MacArthur Butterfly. Adaptive reuse involves taking existing buildings or structures and reimagining (another R) them for new functions while retaining their historic and architectural value. We can point to lots of examples in the UK with our wealth of historic buildings: The Custard Factory in Birmingham; BALTIC in Gateshead; The Engine Shed in Stirling; and any number of others in London and in regenerated docklands around the country.
St. Werburgh’s Church, Bristol. Image: Climbing Academy.
Adaptive reuse of old buildings is not new. As far back as AD 458, a judicial order required Roman citizens to remove any ornamentation from ruined buildings being reused for public projects. This mass removal did, however, stipulate that the buildings should still be usable for Christian worship – a design parameter not applied to St. Werburgh’s in Bristol, which was de-consecrated in 1988 before being converted to a climbing centre.
An important point though, we feel, is that the original buildings now repurposed all these years later were unlikely to have been designed for adaptive reuse in the first place. Certainly, they were built to last – overengineered, some might say, certainly not recommended in this day and age. But design for adaptive reuse is now happening, with Brummen Town Hall from those environmentally-aware Dutch folk being oft-cited as a shining example of built environment in which 90 per cent of the materials can be dismantled and reused, with modular design for easy disassembly, reuse of historic foundations, and even pre-designated second lives for some elements. A good example of regenerative design, as championed by the Design Council in our post a couple of weeks back. Although we’ll leave you to make your own assessment of its aesthetics.
Image: Petra Appelhof
So, the reuse membership of the repurpose set certainly has its place in our book. What about the other, less virtuous, one in the MacArthur Butterfly, refurbish? Well, here’s another word we hear in relation to the circular economy and while it’s not an R, it has its place: upcycle. And while refurbishment (bringing something back to its as-new state) and upcycling (transforming items into new products of higher value, quality, or functionality) are related concepts, we can understand why they are seen as more wicked than reuse, since they imply some degree of investment in virgin or replacement materials, rather than purely reusingwhat’s already there.
We tend to hear the words refurbishment and upcycling a lot related to furniture, don’t we. Everything from pallet furniture on eBay to upcycled church pews, available on Etsy at around three hundred pounds a pop. But the shining example – literally – in our humble opinion comes from those quality-obsessed Japanese with their kintsugi, an example of which we showed earlier in the post. Translated as ‘golden joinery’ or ‘golden repair’, kintsugi is a traditional Japanese technique that involves repairing broken pottery or ceramics using lacquer mixed with powdered gold, silver, or other precious metals. Instead of disguising the cracks, Kintsugi highlights and celebrates them, creating unique and visually stunning pieces of art which reflect wabi-sabi (侘寂), the aesthetic that appreciates the beauty in imperfection, impermanence, and the natural cycle of growth and decay. Sounds like upcycling you’d pay a lot of money for? You will.
We close this post with the repurposing application that could eclipse them all. Second-life EV batteries hold great potential within the context of the circular economy and, as EV adoption increases, we see growing interest in finding ways to extend the lifespan of the batteries beyond their primary use in the vehicles themselves. Use in stationary energy systems driven by solar and wind; grid stabilisation and backup power; future EV mobile charging stations; even for refit into smaller vehicles than the Tesla or Jaguar beasts that begat them. First mover companies focusing in this area are few and far between, but they are around and they are worth watching.
But, as Reuters reported recently, while we may be seeing more startups offering repurposed second-life energy storage using old EV batteries, they might need to fight off competition from recyclers and refurbishers in the process. In relation to repurposers, these are the bad guys and, with mindsets still attuned to recycling rather than anything else, recyclers like Redwood Materials seem to be where the money’s going. For now at least.
We do acknowledge the fact that the architectural concept of adaptive reuse is not proper reuse in the sense that we have just described it. Perhaps the architects should have chosen the term adaptive refurbishment instead.