The Circular Economy: DCI End Of Life Furniture Program

In Blog, Climate Friendly Furniture, Green Manufacturing, Recycle, Repurpose, Reuse, solid wood, Wood is Good by Morgan Dix

What should you do when your furniture reaches the end of its useful life?

That’s a question that we get a lot. And at DCI, we have a program to help you manage your retiring furniture. In short, our goal is to help you keep it out of the landfill.

And to be honest, that’s easier than ever before. If you have solid wood furniture, you have lots of options for giving your furniture another life or even many more lives.

But let’s step back for a moment. Before we get into tactics, there’s a deeper story to tell.

What story?

The Linear Economy Vs The Circular Economy

In short, it’s about the end of the linear economy and the rise of the circular economy.

So let’s define our terms. What are the linear and circular economies?

The Linear Economy

circular economy vs linear economySome people refer to the linear economy as the take, make, and waste economy. It’s the economic model that has led us to the point of ecological systems collapse.

The linear economy unwittingly promotes the idea that those of use who make products aren’t responsible for: 1. the resources we use to make our products; 2. the impact of those products on Earth’s living systems; and 3. the total lifecycle of those products from cradle to grave.

In essence, the linear economy was born of a system that didn’t think beyond short term gain or the limits of the planet. The built-in assumption is that natural resources and energy are limitless and ever-growing profit is the highest good.

And I don’t mean to point fingers here. Perhaps we needed this system to launch the industrial revolution. Obviously, we’ve all benefitted. But what is clear now is that it’s not a sustainable model nor has it been for a long time.

Addressing the cascading consequences of the linear economy takes on added urgency as we see insect and bird populations plummet and extreme weather events increase in scale and frequency across the world.

The Circular Economy

In contrast, the circular economy is based on a different premise. According to designers at the Bressler Group:

A circular economy is designed to use resources for as long as possible, after which they’re recovered and regenerated so that waste is nearly eliminated. It’s a way to design waste out of the system and to minimize negative external impacts. You might have heard it called closed loop, cradle-to-cradle, or zero waste. There are a few core principles to follow when you’re designing products for a circular economy:

    • Efficient use of material and energy
    • Use of recycled and recyclable materials
    • Design for repair, take back, upgrade, and disassembly

What Happens To Old Furniture?

disposable furnitureMost residence hall furniture, at the end of its useful life, goes to the landfill. There are different reasons for that.

Often, the landfill is the easiest option. Schools are busy and facilities staff don’t have time to develop a strategy to manage the furniture they’re replacing.

A lot of times, the furniture is made out of cheap material that isn’t easily recycled or repurposed nor does it maintain its value. I’m talking about furniture made with plastic laminate and particle board. Furniture made with high pressure or low pressure laminate is the cheapest furniture for universities to buy.

However, even though it’s cheap on the front end for schools, there is a real cost to this furniture that gets deferred. That is to say, it’s very difficult to give it a second life. That’s why it’s often referred to as disposable furniture. It’s built to last 5-10 years.

And that’s a problem.

Because even thrift stores don’t want it. So often the only option is to throw it in the landfill. You can’t burn it. You can’t refinish it. And because it’s filled with plastic epoxies, it doesn’t biodegrade.

It’s a perfect example of the take, make, waste paradigm.

How DCI Supports Circular Economy Product Design

AT DCI, we design our furniture based on the principles of the circular economy.

First, in terms of materials, we use solid wood, a renewable resource.

Second, we use every part of the log. Nothing goes to waste.

Third, wood furniture lasts an incredibly long time. In contrast to laminate furniture, which has a 15-year lifespan (planned obsolescence anyone?), solid wood furniture lasts a minimum of 25 years. Many schools still use solid wood furniture we installed in their residence halls 35 years ago.

Fourth, in terms of energy, if the wood doesn’t make it into the furniture, we use it as fuel in our renewable biomass energy system. All our wood waste powers our steam boilers which heat our factory, wood kilns, and offices.

And in the last 12 months the USDA, the US Forest Service, and New Hampshire’s Renewable Energy Fund awarded us grants totaling $1.5 million to upgrade our renewable energy system and start producing our own electricity.

Fifth, unlike plastic laminate and manufactured wood substrates, solid wood is completely recyclable and reclaimable. Even if they make it into the landfill, they biodegrade. That’s not the case with most laminate furniture.

Finally, we have a robust two pronged program to manage our furniture when it reaches the end of its useful life on campus.

DCI’s Buy Back Program

The DCI Buy Back Program is one branch of our end of life initiative to support customers who want to responsibly manage their furniture disposal. We pioneered this program in partnership with the University of New Hampshire.

Through our program, DCI pays customers for their old furniture in the form of a credit toward the purchase of new furniture. In most cases we can extend the buy back program to solid hardwood furniture made by other manufacturers.

As part of the program, we remove the old furniture from your campus at no expense to you.

What do we do with the buy back furniture?

  • First, we recycle all the metal components in the furniture—runners and screws.
  • Then we break down all the solid wood components including drawer fronts, case sides, wardrobe shelves and bottoms, and any larger hardwood components.
  • Finally, we upcycle all this by re-manufacturing the wood components, stripping them down into fixed width strips, and then using those strips for internal hardwood components like corner blocks, cleats, and drawer rails.

What does this program look like in practice?

Here’s how it works with UNH. Through a unique sustainability partnership, DCI furnishes UNH residence halls with brand new solid wood furniture that is fortified with upcycled internal components we made from furniture we installed on their campus over 25 years ago.

Over the last 3 years we have taken back over 500 UNH desks, chests, and assorted tables.

DCI and UNH have maintained this virtuous cycle of sustainability for the last 5 years and we are contracted to continue it for the next decade.

This process is a great artifact of the circular economy we endeavor to promote with our products.

Here’s a case study from Southwestern University who is also participates in our buyback program.

Removal and Repurposing Program

repurposed desks and dressersRemoving and repurposing old furniture is the second branch of our Product End of Life Program.

Often, when we’re installing new furniture, schools have old furniture they need to dispose of and remove. For an added cost, DCI manages all logistics associated with the removal and transportation of the old furniture.

Our goal is to find a new home for that furniture which isn’t the landfill. We have a number of options. We can:

  • Resell it
  • Donate it to Habitat Restore
  • Repurpose it
  • Recycle it
  • Post it on Craigslist

In the last 8 years alone, DCI has recycled, reused, and repurposed over (300) 53-foot containers of used furniture.

Here are a few more recent examples.

Fordham University

At Fordham University in New York, we coordinated the removal and repurposing of 300 sets of furniture worth somewhere between $200-$300k. This was all furniture that went on to live another life instead of going to the landfill.

CalPoly

During a recent installation at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, we removed 500 metal beds from sixteen separate buildings on campus. In the process We filled five 40-yard dumpsters with the beds. For context, that’s equivalent to approximately 200 cubic yards or 1,200 13-gallon trash bags or 50,000 pounds. Fortunately, scrap metal isn’t too hard to recycle. And these are all beds that would have otherwise clogged landfills.

Whittier University

At Whittier University, we recently removed 205 beds with metal springs, 205 pedestal desks, and 205 large five-drawer wood dressers. Here’s how we gave them a new lease on life.

recycled metal beds1. Donating & Recycling Metal Beds
In response to a last minute request, we packaged and sent 30 beds to a school in Northern California. We also connected with a gentleman who specialized in scrap metal who showed up every day in a small truck to pack it up and haul the beds away for scrap metal.
This is a big deal because bedsprings are particularly bad for landfills. According to the University of Minnesota’s Natural Resources Research Institute:
Mostly, it’s the steel springs that landfill managers curse. The springy metal won’t crush. It bounces back, gets stuck in the bulldozers, and takes up a lot of precious space. “In landfills, it’s all about compaction,” says NRRI researcher Tim Hagen. “And bed springs just won’t compact. It’s a huge problem.”

repurposed bed ends2. Upcycling & Repurposing Solid Wood Bed Ends
We donated some to a local goodwill, but because they were made from solid wood we re-manufactured and repurposed most of them as parts for use in new furniture. In addition, one denizen of the neighborhood took about 100 bed ends and used them to build a beautiful fence around his house.

3. Donating 5-Drawer Dressers
We donated all 205 dressers to Habitat Restore in Azusa, CA. Amazingly, they sold through all of them in 10 days. That’s a testament to the quality and durability of solid wood furniture.

4. Donating Desks
We donated as many desks as possible—in total about 75 desks. Because these desks weren’t made from solid wood, we had to break down and throw out the rest.

In truth, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. These are just three examples of initiatives from the last few years.

Towards A Circular Economy

In the end, we do this because we are passionate about supporting the emergence of a circular economy. As manufacturers, we have a key role to play in bringing about the widespread adoption of circular economy product design and business practices.

And this isn’t some green fantasy. All the technology and understanding exists for us to make this transition. We just need to craft a culture that supports and eventually mandates this kind of change.

And further, we feel obliged to create products that have the lightest resource footprint possible while maintaining the highest quality and beauty. As our products trace that circular cycle, we want our furniture to inspire along every curve.