The value of dematerialisation

Materials World magazine
1 Jun 2018

Dematerialisation – the reduction of materials in products and services – may become a key tenet in the circular economy. But how do you define it, and how can materials science and industry benefit? Khai Trung Le reports.

Dematerialisation is a relatively direct concept – the reduction of materials used in a product or service while retaining the same level of functionality to the user. But it has become a recent keyword in the circular economy sector, and was the focus of the second day of the Royal Academy of Engineering (RAE) symposium, Frontiers of Engineering, co-hosted by the Circular Economy Club on 1–3 May.

The symposium was a highly precise, organised, and enthusiastically attended event. But the lack of specificity that afflicted discussions around dematerialisation lent both a freewheeling enthusiasm and a lack of cohesive messaging.

Regardless, Professor Raimund Bleischwitz, Chair of the University College London Institute for Sustainable Resources, UK, and David Fitzsimons, Director of the European Remanufacturing Council, Belgium, who spoke at the event, were enthused by responses to their talks, despite – or because – of the diversity of opinions and personal definitions. ‘I look at dematerialisation more as an inspirational tool for engineers, product developers, and planners, rather than a rigid guide,’ Bleischwitz said. 

‘There are still a lot of questions to be addressed, but after I was invited to speak by the RAE, I thought I should throw stones into the water, and I look forward to the discussions ahead,’ he added.

Fitzsimons was more boisterous about the diversity of debate at the event. ‘It’s comparatively new, and this is exactly what you should be experiencing with something new – people struggling, asking where it fits, how using the term best helps. We’ve gone through this process many times before.’

Same difference

Perhaps the best way of recognising the benefits of dematerialisation is to confront the limitations of current circular economy thinking. Fitzsimons sees similarities between the widespread support of recycling when remanufacturing may be the more beneficial action. ‘Most products that could have their lifecycle extended through remanufacturing are diverted through the recycling route,’ using steel as a key example. ‘A majority of people in the circular economy consider this a good thing, barring the energy balance, although the recycling loop increases contamination. In the end, a lot of recycled steels end up as rebar, one of the cheapest uses.’

The benefits of remanufacturing typically start from an energy perspective – by keeping the product whole, you slow entropy and reduce the amount of products being disassembled, repurposed, or remelted. ‘Remanufacturing is a way of achieving dematerialisation over the product’s lifecycle,’ Fitzsimons continued.

Bleischwitz took a similarly wider view, querying how to pair the circular economy with the need to meet United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). ‘Many people need to be lifted out of poverty – that means building more houses and cities, and new technologies to be delivered to new customers. The advantage of any dematerialisation would be, with less materials being used for general purposes and in a more sustainable manner, we would reduce the environmental pressure on our ecosystems.’

Bleischwitz continued, ‘I encourage adopting a wider system perspective in circular economy efforts, perhaps even at global scale. Today’s efforts often come across as micro-oriented approaches. While this has its strengths, we need to address what is in it for developing countries, and how it responds to geostrategic discussion.’ While Bleischwitz recognised that these queries might dampen enthusiasm on the ground, he felt dematerialisation could serve as a wider dimension that pairs grassroots efforts with global strategy.

There are as many parallels between the circular economy and extractive materials sectors – reducing environmental impact, smarter use of materials, and design-led innovation, and Fitzsimons sees a natural pairing with dematerialisation.

Friends of the Earth?

‘I think everybody in the oil and gas and mining sectors would cheer the efficient use of materials. Clearly, you could say how much better it would be if we carried on mining more materials than losing them in the melt or disposing to landfill. But nobody in the extractive materials sector would celebrate the loss or poor use of those materials. This is merely a constant transition we’re going through, one of continuous improvement,’ he said.

Despite this, few would align the circular economy with bastion industries such as O&G and mining, although Fitzsimons argues the old guard may be the greatest source of revolution. 

‘The people with the most knowledge of the materials they’re taking out of the ground will have the expertise for innovation. There are plenty of examples of engagement in the innovation process, and applying the knowledge gained for life extension will mean the people with the right incentives can find new business opportunities.’

Bleischwitz added, ‘At the end of the day, dematerialisation still means materials are the backbone of societies and economies. There is no transition to a service economy where materials do not matter. We need smarter material value chains for housing, industry, manufacturing, and infrastructure to meet the SDGs.’