In 2019 Ikea sold 100 million pieces of furniture across 50 manufacturing sites in 10 countries. 2021 is projected to be a banner year.

The company announced plans to offer buy backs of old previously purchased furniture to reduce its carbon footprint. The plan has brought a great deal of good climate press for the furniture giant.

Is the press warranted? What does it mean to the company’s output to have a system of recycling old no longer used furniture. The initiative is honorable and trying to address the PR requirements of the climate crisis.

The buyback initiative can work if enough furniture is actually recycled. Let’s have a quick look at buybacks and recycling efforts.

About 9% of the 2 billion kg of recyclable plastic is brought to recycling centers. Printer ink cartridges are not supposed to be added to trash because they are extremely toxic. In the USA there was program to mail old cartridges back to manufacturers or places of purchase. The program failed because it is expensive, it is easier to let the cartridges go in the trash or to China. Most manufacturers of computer circuitry warn throwing away PCBs in the household trash can cause toxic contamination and poisoning. The manufacturers used to buy back the old circuit boards. That cost so much they shipped millions of tons of old PCBs to China. The effect is low birth rates, high rates of infertility and cancer among the populations.

A buyback of furniture needs a great deal of logistics. And if it’s cheaper to throw the furniture away, the manufacturers will. If production at Ikea increased 2% at an output of 2 million units per site that would be 400,000 units. If the buyback received 2 million units back in recycle total, they would either have to bring it back to retail locations or have them shipped back to a manufacturing site. The expense is overwhelming in time and production, even just for such a minor return of old furniture.

What usually happens is the initiative does work for a time, the overall carbon footprint has to increase to account for an input of product. But the initiative footprint decreases, but not the production footprint, which is the real problem.

The net effect is good press during heightened awareness of the issue. Although the overall carbon footprint never really decreases. Look at production, the reissuing or restoring of old furniture needs to be produced, through a material process alot like production of the new item. The process is usually more labor intensive, has more steps, and must have its own dedicated equipment.

The company can absorb the cost, but will they? It’s very unlikely, unless court ordered, that any company will absorb the cost of recycling just because it helps the environment. There are no immediate results that can warrant the need to continue the program after people have moved on to other issues.