Does the circular economy grow the pie?: Rebound effects from smartphone reuse

Updated: Sep 6, 2020

The environmental benefits of the circular economy (CE) are often taken for granted. There are, however, reasons to believe that rebound effects may counteract such benefits by increasing overall consumption or “growing the pie.” In this study, we focus on two main rebound mechanisms: (1) imperfect substitution between “re-circulated” (recycled, reused, etc.) and new products and (2) re-spending due to economic savings. We use the case study of smartphone reuse in the US to quantify, for the first time, rebound effects from reuse. Using a combination of life cycle assessment, sales statistics, consumer surveying, consumer demand modeling, and environmentally-extended input-output analysis, we quantify the magnitude of this rebound effect for life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions. We find a rebound effect of 29% on average, with a range of 27–46% for specific smartphone models. Moreover, when exploring how rebound might play out in other regions and under different consumer behavior patterns, we find that rebound effects could be higher than 100% (backfire effect). In other words, we estimate that about one third, and potentially the entirety, of emission savings resulting from smartphone reuse could be lost due to the rebound effect. Our results thus suggest that there are grounds to challenge the premise that CE strategies, and reuse in particular, always reduce environmental burdens.

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