(Copyright: Daniel Koebe)
Sustainability - June 2024

„The best recycler is the manufacturer“

Interview with architect and author

“Take, use, throw away” – the system of finiteness should be abolished, says Thomas Rau, architect and author of the book “Material Matters“ in an interview. As materials are valuable and limited, they should remain the property of the manufacturer. The result? Products become services.

Recycling is no longer enough, you criticise. What bothers you?
Today's economy is based on the principle of value destruction when it comes to materials. Recycling does not change that. It is downstream, comes last in the product life cycle and is completely disconnected from manufacturing. This is because material destruction costs less than material preservation.

What do you suggest?
A manufacturer should retain ownership of the products and materials. Then they will do everything they can to ensure that their products are as durable, repairable and easy to dismantle as can be. They will build them in such a way that they can be easily upgraded and do not have to be thrown away just because they are not compatible with newer products or functions. This requires a business model that offers products as a service. The best recycler is the manufacturer itself.

Products as a service – does it work?
We have already tested the model several times with a number of companies, for example with Philips. Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam does not buy luminaires from Philips, as originally planned, but light. The entire lighting infrastructure remains the property of Philips. But the supplier also bears all maintenance costs, including the electricity bill. It works perfectly, with profit for both business partners.

Does this mean that a sanitaryware manufacturer provides the entire bathroom equipment?
That’s one example. It could also mean that the water and electricity costs in the bathroom are also the responsibility of the sanitary company. As a result, the company would have a great interest in developing water- and energy-efficient products.

What about sanitary building installations? Who owns the building if the piping system remains the property of the plumbing company and the tiles the property of the tile-layer?
Of course, this service economy doesn't work the way buildings are planned and constructed today. But change is part of the business. The circular economy is a model for society as a whole. It opens up new and, above all, sustainable forms of production and utilisation, but it also requires a different understanding of materials and thus new legal regulations.

That sounds like a lengthy process... ...
and we don't have time. I don't advocate waiting. I have great faith in the economy and its innovative strength. But it has to see value in the materials and their ownership and discover advantages for itself. Then it will develop new answers.

About Thomas Rau

Thomas Rau is an architect, entrepreneur, and book author. His architectural practice RAU Architects in Amsterdam (NL) has specialised in environmentally conscious building since 1992. Thomas Rau is now the undisputed authority in the Netherlands on sustainable building and circular value creation in architecture.