Only about 6% of the vast flow of materials generated by Americans, more than a million pounds per person per year, ends up in final products — and only 2% survives after a few weeks. This is creating a devastating hunger for raw materials of all kinds.
Interface offers an "evergreen lease" on its interlocking commercial carpet tiles, replacing worn tiles every six months and remanufacturing them into new tiles.
During the lifecycle of a product, from extraction through manufacture, use, and disposal, there are needs for water, energy, bulk materials, and specialized substances. When a product is designed for obsolesce, to be thrown away when next year's model arrives, the energy and materials added during production — and the wastes generated — are only amortized over a single use. The alternative is Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), in which the manufacturer retains control of its product's materials, with the corresponding responsibility to remanufacture them.
When a product is designed as a continuous flow of service, its materials are completely reclaimed for use in the next generation of that or another product. There is virtually no waste, and energy use is greatly diminished and spread out over indefinite use. Any toxic substances in the product can be kept tightly controlled, and prevented from leaking into ecosystems. In this model, the "product" can include buildings; vast systems of infrastructure including highways, bridges, and telecommunications networks; and any other object. There is every reason to expect that the creation of Materials Cycles will enhance economic stability, generate prosperity, and regenerate Nature.
Just as plastic bottles carry a recycling code from 1–7 indicating their chemical composition, before too long VCRs, steel beams, windows, desks, boilers, or pipe connections will announce what they are made of, how they may be safely disassembled, and where they should be returned. Embedded chips, miniature text, weblinks, or other information media can be used to signal this information. One of the largest Swedish construction companies is already stamping every building component with this information.
Designing products as services is not especially difficult. It imposes a simple discipline that tends to favor fewer kinds and quantities of materials; reversible connections between pieces; ease of disassembly; modularity; multifunctionality; and upgradability. This tends to make products easier to use, more versatile, and easier to maintain. By leasing a product from the manufacturer, customers obtain a superior level of service, including technical support, repair, and upgradability. This is particularly valuable in sectors like computers and communications that are mutating so rapidly that hardware is obsolete before it is purchased. It evens out capital purchases, converting them to monthly payments. Manufacturers get the opportunity to extract value from old products, create a whole new range of services, and minimize their environmental impacts.
Many companies and industries are rapidly embracing the model of product as service. Carrier, the world's largest manufacturer of air conditioning equipment, is now offering thermal comfort contracts for buildings. Carrier can maintain the desired comfort level through a combination of Resource Efficiency building retrofits, new equipment, and improved control and management. Xerox leases its copiers, and then remanufactures them for use all over the world. In the European Union (EU), a new directive to be phased in over the next few years will require electronics and electrical products to be taken back by their manufacturers.
Design products for continuing streams of service and value, not obsolesce. Create policies that favor the takeback of products by manufacturers. Establish protocols for labeling products, buildings, and other objects with disassembly and remanufacturing instructions.