Globally, landfill waste is a growing problem. In 2012, the solid waste generated by cities around the world amounted to 1.3 billion tonnes annually, and the World Bank estimates this number may reach 2.2 billion tonnes by 2025.
While cities and communities are starting new recycling and reuse projects such as public drinking fountain networks and community repair cafés, one waste-fighting initiative is making waves inside the manufacturing industry itself: re-manufacturing.
So, what is remanufacturing? The concept is different from recycling or simply repairing. In remanufacturing, an old, worn-out item is disassembled, each individual piece is cleaned and restored—or even upgraded—and the item is reassembled, ready for use. The quality of the finished product is as good as new, but the process uses much less energy and fewer raw materials than producing a brand-new item from scratch.
The remanufacturing industry is gaining ground in countries—and many different sectors—around the world. In Saskatchewan, Canada, a remanufacturing company called Last Mountain Timber collects good-quality beams of discarded timber from demolition sites and scrap heaps, refurbishes the worn surfaces, and reshapes the wood according to what customers need. They have salvaged over 1.6 million feet of old wood over the span of 20 years, including timber from hundreds of old grain elevators that would have otherwise ended up in landfills.
In the UK, the Scottish Institute for Remanufacture connects local businesses with schools and universities, encouraging collaboration between sectors to develop new remanufacturing techniques and processes. Their projects now include restoring and upgrading used computers, mobile phones, diesel filters, wind farms, and even aerial drones.
In China, the German company Mercedes-Benz has opened up a new remanufacturing plant for auto parts. The plant aims to restore and upgrade parts for electric cars, providing good quality auto components to customers at half the ordinary cost.
In Japan, the healthcare industry is launching an experimental strategy for remanufacturing single-use medical equipment such as electrical scalpels, which are typically used once and thrown away. Hospitals can now pass on electrical scalpels to specialist companies that completely disassemble the equipment, disinfect and repair each component, and put them back together again for new use.
As the remanufacturing industry grows, so does the financial boost to economies. The BBC reports that the Scottish remanufacturing industry is worth 1.1 billion pounds (over 2 billion Canadian dollars) annually. In Asia, China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology has estimated that the Chinese remanufacturing industry will reach a net worth of 200 billion yuan (41 billion Canadian dollars) by 2020.
Professor Jonathan Corney, a board member of the Scottish Institute for Remanufacture, says possibilities for the industry are huge. In an interview with the BBC, he suggested remanufacturing could eventually amount to “a new industrial revolution”. Remanufacturing saves energy and raw materials, putting less pressure on the environment; it provides good quality, more affordable products for customers; and since remanufacturing jobs are highly skilled, it creates a new industry of skilled workers who are less likely to be outsourced or replaced by machines.
Still, it may be a little early to anticipate sweeping changes. Remanufacturing companies are still working to convince sometimes sceptical customers that a remanufactured item is as good as a brand-new item. Manufacturers will need to start producing more good-quality items that are possible to later restore and remake, rather than disposable low-quality items.
In the meantime, however, public recognition and acceptance of remanufacturing is changing for the better. The annual UK Made In Scotland awards, which recognize local businesses and products, have just added a new category called Remade in Scotland, which is awarded to Scottish companies that “demonstrate innovation within the design and/or manufacturing process which contribute to extending product lifecycles and diverting waste from landfill through reuse.”
Trade and technical schools are also evolving in response to new demand for remanufacturing workers. In Springfield, Missouri, the Ozarks Technical Community College now offers specialized training in remanufacturing. The college has partnered with remanufacturing company SRC Holdings to provide courses for students in the diesel, automotive, and manufacturing streams.
As the remanufacturing industry continues to develop worldwide, the life cycle of products will change. Instead of heading for the landfill, more and more of your old possessions may just find new life—and perhaps waste will someday become a thing of the past.
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