Essential information for end of life vehicle dismantling, depollution and recycling

Adam Hewitt
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Sustainability: A Beginner’s Guide Part 2 – “We’re going to have to science the s*** out of this one”

David Parker, Circular Economy Specialist at Oakdene Hollins, a research and consulting company advising on sustainability and the circular economy, uses the ideas of Dr Walter Stahel to provide part two of a guide to sustainability and how the circular economy is one way this can be achieved.


Sustainability - a beginner’s guide part two - going to have to science f
David Parker

Left for dead on Mars, Matt Damon’s in a spot of trouble. Short on just about everything, he makes Ellen’s lot look pretty cosy (see Part 1).  Hope is not a viable option, and with this realisation comes a sense of clarity and purpose.  He utters the totemic line of the sub-title and in the process foreshadows our task ahead.

Matt’s ingenuity and resolve – poor Hollywood chemistry and physics aside – are now required but need direction.  In Part 1, we considered the meaning of sustainability, alerted ourselves to the opportunities for greenwashing this word affords and noted the need for responsibility for action close to home.  Turning to a guiding light, we learnt of Walter Stahel; his ideas are the focus of this article.

Walter’s big idea was that we shouldn’t consider materials and products as a stream, welling up, flowing past us – briefly – and disappearing back into the ground. Instead, everything we have should be thought of as from a lake, an inventory to be piped out, used and re-used and – if necessary – returned to the lake.  It’s a simple shift in perspective, and he did a lot of analysis to demonstrate that the idea hung together economically, environmentally and socially. 

The Stahel idea is the backbone of the MacArthur mission, but Walter started by being very focused on product re-use and remanufacturing as deliverers of performance: lower energy and materials use, drivers of profitability, conservers of critical materials and creators of valuable jobs.  Recycling was lower on his list; his and other analysis bears this out: much of recycling just about breaks even energy-wise and is not nearly as effective at keeping materials in the loop and, for good measure, jobs in recycling are not that much fun in truth.

So, focusing on products first off gets us in the performance frame of mind and maximises our chances of hitting the right buttons.  But we need to follow through with recycling and materials-oriented tactics too.  And do not ignore the over-riding need to eliminate waste, dematerialise products and services and extend product lives: quite a challenge but do-able.

How, then, do we operationalise this?  This is where the science comes in (and there’s more in Part 3), giving us a better grip on those loops.  Some bright thinkers have freed their inner Damon to provide us with a way in.  Not only can we close them but we can also make them tighter, that is, shorten the circular supply chains to eliminate anything which makes tracking customers, products and materials harder; make them slower, that is, to lengthen the time products are in use (the whole point of remanufacturing); and make them narrower, that is, using resource efficiency measures requiring less material and energy to create and support products and services or give them more uptime.  So, by using a product for two lifetimes and using half the energy and materials to support it, we’ve already reduced our lifetime impact by a factor of four.

You can see examples of these tactics at work across many sectors, but particularly in automotive:

  • Fleet management practices tighten the circularity loop by consolidating multiple potential owners down to one.
  • Predictive maintenance such as that undertaken by tyre manufacturer Michelin allows for slower product cycles through improved care and maintenance schemes.
  • At their facility in Choisy-Le-Rois, Renault remanufactures their components both slowing product life cycles and narrowing the resource use of their repair and maintenance operations.

These are great moves, but they’re still some way from practical steps you and I should take, and that will be the topic of Part 3 where we consider the shape of the future and practical actions on sustainability.

To find out more from Oakdene Hollins, visit

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