UK economy (still) missing out on remanufacturing revolution

The UK continues to lag behind the rest of the world when it comes to developing a remanufacturing industry, with a notable lack of cooperation between Government and industry stifling the transition to a more circular economy.

That was the conclusion of a conference held by the All-Party Parliamentary Sustainable Resource Group (APSRG) and All-Party Parliamentary Manufacturing Group (APMG) in London last week. The Conference was held as a follow-up to a remanufacturing report released by the two organisations last December.

Report co-chair Caroline Spelman said: “People have been listening to the recommendations of this group. The European Commission is now paying attention to what is needed in the new circular economy package, and Defra has taken the recommendations of our report and passed it onto the Commission.

“But barriers still remain. I recently bumped into one of the most senior civil servants at Defra, and he hadn’t even heard of remanufacturing. It’s a bit depressing. It’s not a question of any member of Government taking a stand against remanufacturing, but there is certainly a systemic blockage and Defra actually needs to be the champion of the cause, pushing the Treasury into releasing money for this sector.”

System change

Also speaking at the conference was director of the newly launched Scottish Institute for Remanufacture (SIR) Dr Winifred Ijomah, who agreed that last year’s report helped to raise awareness, but said more practical support from Government – namely funding and the development of a national centre for expertise – is needed for the industry to achieve its full potential.

“We are lagging behind the rest of the world – not just in developed economies, but developing ones as well,” said Dr Ijomah. “All of the major economies have identified product recovery as an enabler for future competitiveness.

“All of the major industrial regions have a national centre for expertise to forward their knowledge on product recovery including remanufacture, except for the UK. Expertise to exploit these opportunities in the UK is dispersed and is therefore ineffective.

“We have got the correct mix of skills, industry and workforce, and we have a good transport network. The key weakness is our current system; it prevents access to those opportunities. We’re manufacturing in a different environment than we were last century, but our systems have not changed, and they have got to.”

Good guys

As a modern industrial concept, remanufacturing continues to be a relatively immature industry in the UK, despite recent estimates concluding it could add up to £5.6bn to GDP. A lack of capital to leverage research and development; an absence of a skilled workforce specific to remanufacturing; and the lack of legal uptake of a definition for remanufacturing were all cited as key challenges in the report.

By contract, the US has become a world-leader in remanufacturing while other countries such as China, Japan and Germany are investing heavily in the sector and removing regulatory barriers or incorporating subsidies.

Speaking on behalf of industry at last week’s event, David Cornish, global sustainability manager at AkzoNobel – which is currently exploring remanufacturing opportunities within the paint industry – said: “The current remanufacturing regulations seem to be in place to stop bad folks doing bad things.

“Those of us, in whatever market, that are trying to turn waste into something new, see ourselves as good guys trying to do good things. Perhaps the single biggest thing that Government could do to help us bring about the transformation to a new remanufacturing model is to give us some help in making the rules work for us and not against us. The signals that come out of government about remanufacturing at least need to be consistent.”

Furniture reuse

The past year has seen some positive developments for the UK’s remanufacturing sector. In October 2014, SIR was launched to stimulate innovation and collaboration across Scotland.

And at an EU-level, the European Manufacturing Network is facilitating the formation of the European Remanufacturing Council to support businesses and create greater awareness of remanufacturing in both the public and private spheres. 

The APSRG and APMG took place on the same day that a new report from waste think-tank RSA and resorces firm SUEZ revealed that 1.6 million tonnes of bulky waste – 42% of which is furniture – is sent to landfill in the UK every year, despite over 50% of it being reusable.

Luke Nicholls

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