Imagine a world without waste

Remanufacturing: the disruptive force awakens

Britain is a nation of recyclers. The business of removing, managing and recycling waste has grown threefold over the past decade and all suppliers are familiar with Producers Responsibility. Yet recycling is certainly not the only way to build sustainable supply chains and a world without waste – and it may not be the best either.

Another way to achieve that goal is remanufacturing – the process of rebuilding a product at the end of its life to return it to its original state, and even improve upon its original performance. The process starts a new cycle in the life of the product which now carries the warranty of the remanufacturer, and where it will come out as good as new – or even better.

Although the UK’s remanufacturers fly under the radar of popular news, they could well be the missing link to a truly sustainable supply chain.

By saving their customers the cost of buying new products, remanufacturers save Britain an estimated 10 million tons of CO2 every year. They also employ 50,000 people and add an estimated £2.4billion to Britain’s GDP. In some industry sectors such as heavy machinery, aerospace, energy and automotive, remanufacturing is well developed, whereas in others (furniture, white goods, kitchen appliances, paint) it’s still in its infancy.

It’s clear, however, that remanufacturing falls dramatically short of its potential in the UK.

"The UK’s remanufacturers fly under the radar yet claim to be the missing link to a truly sustainable economy."

One of the big problems is regulation. “Once a company collects an old product from you to remanufacture it, that product will immediately fall under waste management guidelines, which make it harder or impossible for the company to remanufacture it in a cost-effective way,” warns Professor Steve Evans, director of research at the Centre for Industrial Sustainability at the University of Cambridge.

The other big hurdle is the absence of a clear legal definition and official trading standards, which make it almost impossible to create credible brands and win over the consumer. Ultimately, remanufacturing is about selling and buying products for reuse, so the consumer needs to trust the remanufactured product before they consider the lower price tag.

Were those hurdles to be lifted, remanufacturing could fulfil its promise and dramatically transform supply chains. “Remanufacturing is absolutely baked into circular business models,” says Hugo Spowers, founder and chief engineer of Riversimple, a startup building hydrogen fuel cell cars. He explains that, as the products go back to the supplier at the end of their life to be regenerated, they are designed to be as efficient as possible so the maximum value of the product can be recovered. This makes for a strong incentive to manufacture quality products – the reverse of the traditional model, where suppliers might be more likely to make their products as cheaply as possible. But in the long run, it works out cheaper for the company to lease components rather than buy them.

The transformative potential of remanufacturing lies in the simple logic that an old product is first and foremost a resource we can build upon. If that’s true, remanufacturing may become our first choice, and recycling our last resort.


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