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Technology... the key to circular economy eutopia?

Last week my ageing washing machine broke down. Flooded the kitchen you know the drill. It’s not the first time this has happened but I long for it to be the last.

Iain Gulland | 21 Nov 16

Surely, in our quest towards a more circular economy in which keeping things in use is king, there’s a better way than spending hours on the phone to report a fault? One in which arranging an engineer doesn’t mean spending several days with dirty washing quite literally piling up.  Last time I actually had to revert to social media to embarrass the repair company into helping me out.

This is a common reality for everyday consumers. There is a need for service models to adapt. As ever we are all not really interested in the machine but the provision of a washing service and when we are left without this we are bereft and frustrated. A ready market for the Circular Economy surely?

Right now however, it’s tough to find a true leasing option for a domestic washing machine. We know that this dilemma is at the heart of a circular economy. The recent Green Alliance report on eco-design emphasises again the impact of our current washing machine industry and argues that more direct action on design standards could encourage a faster shift to rental and leasing. Manufacturers would see the business opportunity through extending the life of the product but also providing the servicing and upgrading capability.

One of the barriers to a more extensive repair culture is the availability of suitably qualified and experienced engineers. Our investment in repair cafes and skills is helping, empowering us all to learn new or forgotten skills and have the confidence to fix stuff ourselves. The Remakery in Edinburgh is a great example. YouTube has for many years helped us fix stuff and the I-fixit crowd sharing expertise has taken many smart phone and computer repairs to a new level.

So what’s next? A parallel development is the idea of using artificial intelligence through a ‘smart helmet’ linking the customer to a ‘virtual’ qualified engineer in a remote location who can instruct unfortunate appliance-owners like myself to fix their machine in real time.

It may seem a bit space-agey just now, but research is pointing towards technology as the key to a circular economy.  Could the very use of said helmet be a circular economy model in itself? Perhaps forward-thinking manufacturers could use the technology to roll-out an accessible network of experienced and suitably trained engineers? A collaboration with our developing ReVolve reuse and repair network to support and host the expanding army of skilled engineers in itself offering local job and training opportunities.

Sounds like a circular economy utopia for anyone who, like me, has spent frequent weekends coddling complaining kitchen appliances in the name of sustainability. Does anyone want to pilot such an approach? Funding available here at Zero Waste Scotland.

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