The Future is Circular - Anticipating a Greater Role for Sustainable Furniture in the Circular Economy
4 May 2022 Blog
Every year, almost 20 million tonnes of furniture is thrown into landfills in the European Union and the United States.
That’s because the sector has a very low re-use rate, with just 10% of furniture waste recycled in the EU and 0.3% of furniture discarded at landfills in the USA recovered to use again. We recycle and/or reuse mobile phones, laptops, TVs, clothes, kitchen appliances, household plastic and glass waste, packaging, and even food waste. So why don’t we recycle, re-use, or re-purpose furniture? The world is waking up to this problem, and as it does, the role of certification systems like PEFC will become more crucial.
Part of why we have been slow to adopt widespread recycling of furniture is because it is often not manufactured (or sold) with recycling in mind. This can be true not only for modular “fast-furniture” but also for more expensive, single-source hardwood pieces. Often, we see furniture as meeting specific (and therefore limited) needs, rather than being something that can be repurposed. Indeed, a survey by the British Heart Foundation revealed that one-third of the people surveyed threw away still-functional furniture rather than selling or donating it. Some respondents reported that even though they wanted to donate their furniture, they did not know how to.
This is particularly striking given that we all know how to recycle glass, paper, and aluminium cans. But there is a dearth of messaging on recycling for furniture, and so off the discarded desk goes to the dump. This is an example of the ‘linear approach’ or the ‘take, make, and waste’ paradigm. We take materials from the earth, we make products from them, and then we dispose of those products as waste. It’s a familiar pattern that has underpinned the expansion of global economies since the industrial revolution and continues today. However, this pattern (more, faster, cheaper) is not sustainable, and we need to reconsider how we source, make, purchase, and dispose of furniture. The good news is that there is a solution to this problem.
What we mean when we say “Circular”
In line with the Sustainable Development Goals of the UN 2030 Agenda, experts increasingly see circular economies as a viable way to address our waste problem. In contrast to the linear approach, the circular economy is a model of production and consumption that stops waste from being produced in the first place and mimics the natural world’s approach to waste management, in which the waste from one process becomes the raw inputs for another. Also known as ‘closed-loop’ systems, the circular economy aims to preserve natural resources and reduce potential waste by substituting products with services (such as rental, licensing, or buyback schemes) and designing products to be used over and over again. This can include making them modular, easier to disassemble and repurpose, which effectively extends the product life cycle. It’s an approach that keeps waste to a minimum by maintaining materials from recycled and repurposed products in the economy as long as possible. That also creates additional value.
For a more formal definition, we turn to the European Union and the Ellen McArthur Foundation. They establish the circular economy as being built on three main principles:
- Eliminate waste and pollution and preserve and enhance natural capital by, for example, selecting required natural resources wisely and choosing, wherever possible, technologies and processes that use renewable or better-performing resources.
- Circulate materials and products by optimizing resource yields, and designing products specifically for remanufacturing, refurbishing, and recycling to keep components and materials in circulation and contribute to the economy.
- Regenerate nature by fostering system effectiveness and designing out “negative external impacts”, such as reducing damage to human utility, and managing externalities, such as land use, air, water, and noise pollution, the release of toxic substances, and climate change.
While that all sounds ideal, how does that translate into meaningful action in the furniture industry? There are many opportunities for the furniture value chain to become more circular. For example, Furniture as a Service (FaaS) subscription models are being trialled to cater to the nomad-like lifestyles of millennials, who tend to move residences often. On the design side, Modularity is increasingly capturing the attention of furniture makers, who make pieces that are easy to disassemble, reuse, and recycle.
Adopting circular economy principles towards our furniture doesn’t mean starting over from scratch. 6 key cycles can be followed to make furniture more circular.
- Maintain - Regular maintenance of existing furniture goes a long way. This can include adding a layer of oil, varnish, or wax to a bed frame to prolong its life.
- Repair - Making corrections or adjustments when they’re needed, like fixing the broken leg of a chair.
- Reuse - Giving furniture a second life through a change in ownership, whether that’s a dresser passed down as a family heirloom, furniture sold or donated through an online platform like eBay, or simply giving to a charity or second-hand organization.
- Refurbish - Altering or remanufacturing older furniture, perhaps by refitting or reupholstering a sofa.
- Repurpose - Changing the intended use of a piece of furniture, such as resizing a table into a desk.
- Recycle - Recovering valuable and useful components of end-of-life discarded furniture and using these components in new products
When furniture owners find ways to extend the life cycle of furniture, when designers prioritise ease of disassembly and re-use, and when manufacturers source raw materials from sustainable sources, the furniture industry will achieve true circularity.
Who stands to benefit from a circular economy?
With more than two-thirds of global greenhouse gas emissions linked to materials management, a transition to a more circular economy can substantially contribute to meeting climate targets as outlined in the Paris Agreement. In fact, if the 194 member countries of the Paris Agreement adopted comprehensive circular solutions to their economies, it would remove 26 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases from our atmosphere, and drastically improve our chances of avoiding a +2 degree global temperature increase.
The increased global demand for low-cost timber products has also placed enormous pressure on the world’s forests. Illegal logging, a multi-billion-dollar industry, is a primary factor in deforestation, especially in tropical regions. By degrading biodiversity and forests’ economic value, forest exploitation makes land even more vulnerable to deforestation for other uses, such as conversion for agricultural purposes. Almost half the land that is converted annually is illegally cleared, which in turn, removes important carbon sinks and havens for biodiversity, and denies forests the chance to supply strategically important renewable materials, such as wood.
In a circular system, the demand for raw, natural resources from certified sustainable and renewable sources, such as wood, will grow significantly. This shift towards responsibly sourced natural resources will additionally have the positive impact of shrinking the market for wood from unknown and potentially illegal sources, with certified sustainable timber meeting higher consumer expectations and stricter regulatory standards.
But circular systems are good for more than just forests. A wide-ranging study commissioned by Mckinsey Sustainability in partnership with the Ellen McArthur Foundation estimated that a circular approach in the EU could boost Europe’s resource productivity by 3 percent by 2030, generating cost savings of €600 billion a year and €1.8 trillion more in other economic benefits. A circular economy allows value recovery, economic growth, and job creation, fostering sub-industries like small-to-medium sized repair, refurbishment, recycling, and remanufacturing businesses. In independent modelling, the European Environment Bureau estimates that if EU member states adopted the circular economy in full, almost 160 000 additional jobs will be created.
Within the furniture industry, we can already find positive examples of circularity in action. Berliner Stadtreinigung, the municipal waste department of Berlin, has opened an entire department store selling discarded furniture. The store relies on a collection scheme via donations from local residents. This model may also pose a potential remedy for waste in metropolitan areas, as furniture constitutes the second-highest portion of urban waste in American cities.
What PEFC intends to do to make this a reality
At PEFC, we believe we all have a role to play in shifting from a wasteful, unsustainable linear system of production and consumption towards a more sustainable future for our planet, and it starts with the source. Using raw, responsibly sourced natural materials, such as wood, will be a critical element of the transition towards a circular economy. Wood can be sourced from renewable sources, turned into a product, re-used, and at the end of its life cycle, it can be recycled into something else. The journey of a tree, from felling to end of life, offers numerous opportunities for value creation and resource retention. It’s a cycle, and it works.
The challenge is sourcing those materials sustainably. With 3 billion more middle-class consumers expected globally by 2030, growing resource demands could place even more pressure on our forests if they are not managed sustainably. PEFC, with its bottom-up, local approach, supports independent forest owners to gain sustainable forest management certification to prove that the wood from their forests has been harvested with respect for the highest ecological, social, and ethical standards. PEFC sustainable forest management certification ensures that forests can remain secure sources of renewable materials in a number of ways:
- Maintain or increase forests and their ecosystem services and maintain or enhance the economic, ecological, cultural, and social values of forest resources.
- Safeguard the capacity of the forest to store and sequester carbon in the medium and long term by balancing harvesting and growth rates
- Encourage climate-positive practices in management operations, such as greenhouse gas emission reductions and efficient use of resources.
- Harvesting levels of both wood and non-wood forest products shall not exceed a rate that can be sustained in the long term, and optimum use shall be made of the harvested products.
Sustainable forestry systems are an effective measure to transition towards a circular economy, pursuant to the UN 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, and meet the growing global demands for forest products. Responsible sourcing of materials from renewable sources is the first element in the ‘closed-loop’ approach to waste, and indeed a circular economy cannot be achieved without it.
In addition, PEFC chain of custody certification allows timber suppliers and producers to track certified products throughout the entire value chain, from the forest to the furniture store, and prove that their wood comes from legal and sustainable sources. Chain of custody certification also allows for the recognition of recycled materials bearing the PEFC Recycled label or PEFC Certified label. This is part of PEFC’s inclusive approach to circularity, which sees recycling and certification of virgin timber as complementary approaches that can both sustain our forests and meet market demands for wood and wood-based products. Inclusive approaches like this will be essential to the transition towards a circular economy.
Forests Are Home
When furniture manufacturers choose certified wood, when retailers choose certified sources, when customers choose certified furniture, we all help safeguard the world's forests, its ecosystem and contribute to healthy local communities, local workers, and the local economy.
Through Forests Are Home, PEFC is bringing wood suppliers, furniture manufacturers and designers together to demonstrate that effective partnerships in the furniture supply chain can lead to a brighter future for the world’s forests.