Fix What’s Broken

170 - BagThink for a moment about all the ‘stuff’ you’ve ever brought.

From when you were a kid, to the age you are now – the clothes, the books, the home items, the magazines, the shoes, the electrical goods, the furniture, the carpets, the crockery, the mobile phones, the computer games, the cushions, the kettles, the deckchairs, the cars . . . everything.

Where are they now ?

Assuming you’re home isn’t some vast Indiana Jones like warehouse full of everything you’ve ever owned (how disconcerting would that be?), it’s safe to assume the vast majority of the things you’ve bought you eventually threw away.

Why ?

All those raw materials, all that energy used in manufacture and transport, all the water used to grow the wood or cotton etc, all the chemicals, all the packaging? None of it really thrown ‘away’ of course, there’s no such place, but landfilled in some home in the ground – several hundred tons of your own personal waste.

Why ?

Sometimes we just get bored or tired of things, sometimes things go out of style, sometimes we’ve just no further use for something, but it’s more than likely that a large percentage of the stuff you’ve thrown away, you got rid of because it was broken.

Just a couple of generations ago many of these broken things would have been repaired, once, twice or even over and over again – whether tables, clothes, shoes or tools. This attitude of scarcity, of material things being limited and valuable, is now largely history. In our throwaway society stuff is cheap – it usually costs less to buy a new one than it would to fix the old one, and certainly it’s a lot less hassle. Who has time to fix stuff these days ?

But taking the time and effort to repair things is making something of a comeback – from Amsterdam’s Repair Cafes (which are now popping-up further afield), to increasing numbers of writers and bloggers discussing it – check out My Make Do and Mend Year or The Case for Working with your Hands.

Some of this is down to austerity of course – we’re all having to get by on less money than before, and so feel more inclined to patch up our coat, or re-screw the table leg, than use the excuse to buy something new. But some of the popularity stems from an increasing awareness of the connection between our own wasteful, consumerist lifestyles, and the environmental and social damage being done elsewhere in the world to support them. We increasingly understand it’s hypocritical to bemoan global warming while buying endless replacement gadgets and stuff made in Chinese coal powered factories, or to feel appalled about poor working conditions or workplace disasters elsewhere in the world, while buying endless £3 T-shirts on the High Street.

Just to be clear – I’m as much a hypocrite as anyone else – consumption is so deeply woven into our society it’s not an easy thing to avoid.

This isn’t just a personal problem – we’ve built our whole economies on a model of never ending consumption. We need to maintain ‘consumer confidence’ or GDP takes a bit of a hit. The phrase ‘planned obsolescence‘, you might be interested to learn, was first used in 1932, in a plan to help end the depression by ensuring all manufacturers produced goods that were designed to quickly break – in order to stimulate and perpetuate consumer demand! They realised even then, that if we all simply stop buying new stuff we’re going to have to face some rather difficult consequences.

On the other hand the phrase ‘waste not want not‘ dates back to at least the 1700s, and suggests that if we were to waste less in the present, then we’d have more left for ourselves in the future.

Solving this dilemma – by ensuring resources are used not just effectively, but also efficiently, but without collapsing the economy, is one of the key challenges of sustainability. To achieve it we’ll need to develop a much more circular economy, making it easier to use and reuse materials – while at the same time decoupling economic growth from consumption.

In the meantime, as policy makers and economists wrestle with how to do this, I’ll keep fixing my 10 year old bag . . . buy less, mend more.

 

Similar articles – Can Christmas Still Really Change the World ?, Top 10 Anti-Consumerist Must Haves, The Year of Anti-Consumerist LivingThe Art of Giving Up, What Do You Want for Christmas?,  Buy Nothing DayCleaning Out My Closet

The NEXT Industrial Revolution

A guest post by Alastair Sloan, a social entrepreneur and journalist, and writer of the ‘serious and fun’ blog: Alastair Sloan.

At the beginning of this year, Ellen MacArthur set out a vision for a “circular economy” to the world leaders and CEOs assembled at Davos. Her foundation had teamed up with McKinsey to deliver a report challenged our current economic model of “take-make-dispose,” and proposed an alternative manufacturing mindset – “what happens to this when my customer finishes using it?” Her video, well worth a watch before you read further, shows how a “circular economy” takes inspiration from the energy cycles we see in nature.

Reducing waste is a topic I’m particularly passionate about. It’s why I founded The Living Furniture Project, which takes unwanted furniture from around London and upcycles it, employing homeless people to do the work. Last year in the UK, households threw out 670,000 tonnes of furniture. Research by Wrap showed that 45% was re-usable. This social enterprise is a good example of how re-use can not only reduce landfill reliance, but also create jobs by cycling materials back around the economy. It finds inspiration in other re-use schemes, like theLondon Re-use Network and re-use centres in Flanders, Belgium.

The Living Furniture Project will only scratch the surface. The UK landfills more than any other European country, and in 2018 we will completely run out of space for waste. We are so accustomed to dealing with these mountains of rubbish, that we easily forget that we are the only species that has to create landfill. Mother nature is far smarter than us, and as a consequence 100% efficient – every ounce of biomatter lives, dies, decomposes, is eaten and lives again. It’s a continuous cycle that sustainability visionaries William McDonough and Michael Braungart call “waste = food” (watch their film of the same name to understand this more).

The argument for moving to this “circular economy” is compelling – not just because of the obvious impact in areas like climate change, but because it makes commercial sense. Linear consumption (the status quo) is by its nature risky; it puts your business at the mercy of fluctuating commodity prices. And as resources dwindle, competition becomes even fiercer, and weaker companies will flounder.

Now imagine a product that is designed from re-usable materials, and in such a way that it can be easily disassembled. In that business model you can sell a product (for example, a running shoe), collect back all or part of the shoe (perhaps the sole, as Nike are currently exploring), restore it at a fraction of the price and sell it back to the same customer – you’ve made the same sale twice.

The McKinsey report estimated that this kind of innovation could create savings in Europe alone of $630bn. Taking mobile phones as an example, handsets which were easier to disassemble and re-use would be 50% cheaper than current models.

But if you must produce waste, don’t worry. Industrial by-product can be a commercial opportunity too, so long as you adopt circular design principles. A good example is Swiss textile factory Rohner, which before 1991 was creating huge amounts of harmful chemical waste. The chemicals used in the inks and wools meant that waste disposal was an expensive burden to the business. But working with McDonough and Braungart, they radically changed their manufacturing process to only use materials which hadn’t been chemically treated in any way. Once the change was made, the only waste the factory produced was 100% biodegradable. This meant the by-product of the manufacturing process could now be sold to local farmers as a fabric to protect their crops in winter (see picture below). Sales of this fabric represented a third of the $8m revenues generated by the factory over the following three years.

Harvard Business Review has looked at the relationship companies are seeing between waste reduction and profitability, and noted two effects. Companies are consistently more profitable when they reduce waste, and additionally are attracting a much higher calibre of managerial talent, who are particularly interested to address these kind of sustainability challenges. This high-quality talent has a huge knock-on effect across the business, with innovative thinking being applied in other areas and creating yet more profitability.

The argument for “the circular economy” continues if you look at the increasing sophistication of our information technology systems. A shift to globalised production has required digital solutions to managing complex supply chains that can stretch from Taipei to California, and back again.

These systems can be put to use immediately, in preparing the groundwork for a shift to cradle to cradle production. Companies can easily scrutinize every screw, plastic and thread in a product – and work out exactly where it’s from, what it’s made of and where it’s going to. This heightened visibility means that for a company to move to a circular model of production, they should have all the information at their fingertips to create a strong implementation plan.

There has also been a shift in consumer thinking, that strongly favours the case for change. In 2012, popular sentiment tipped in favour of sustainability, with over half of consumers now saying that sustainable production is “very important” or “important” to them (Euromonitor).

Indeed, the “green economy” in the UK grew 4.7% last year (in stark contrast to other sectors suffering in the downturn), and now constitutes 8% of our national GDP.

This kind of consumer support is critical, as the required changes to consumer mindsets are radical. One of the major changes is around expectations of ownership, with more focus on “leasing and returning” and less on permanent ownership of goods.

For example, your washing machine could be “issued” on a 5 year lease and then returned to the manufacturer for “refreshing” and re-sale. McKinsey forecast that high-end washing machines would become accessible for nearly all households if they were leased instead of sold—customers would save roughly a third per wash cycle, and the manufacturer would earn roughly a third more in profits.

This might set alarm bells ringing for many -  what happens if the company wants their product back when you would rather keep it?

But the reality is we already live, to some extent, with these kind of arrangements. The percentage of American cars leased rather than owned has grown from 7% in 1990 to 20% in 2010. At one point, in 1999, nearly one in four American cars were not owned by their driver.

In 2009, Amazon Kindle users discovered that ebooks they thought they owned, were in fact only leased. In a spat with a publisher, Amazon had decided to recall copies of Orwell’s “1984” and “Animal Farm” which disappeared overnight from Kindles all around the world.

It sparked consumer outrage, but Amazon pointed out the small print and showed that they were within their rights as ebooks were, in fact, leased not owned. Outrage aside, when we consider that this leasing arrangement had quietly existed for two years beforehand, before being questioned in an isolated incident, leasing rather than owning property doesn’t seem like such an outlandish idea. And even since the scandal, ebook sales have been soaring, now outstripping paperbacks by 14%.

The circular economy has been tested and intitally seen positive results. Over the past ten years, McDonough and Braungart have implemented their “cradle to cradle” concept with high-profile manufacturers including Nike, Ford and Nestle (see the video below).

However, working with the Chinese government to build a series of much-vaunted “eco-towns,” they failed to get convincing results. But this had more to do with the challenging Chinese business environment, especially for foreigners, rather than subverting the guiding principles of circular economics (for an excellent analysis by Christina Larson, see here).

It would constitute a total dismantling of the modern economic system. It’s been called “the next industrial revolution.” But the circular economy makes sound commercial sense. Companies have systems available now to start quietly exploring their options. Consumers are clearly asking for it. And building on the trials that “cradle to cradle” pioneers have now made, the possibility of a new era of industrial design, inspired by ecology, looks increasingly likely.

 

Similar articles – Meet Ellen MacArthur, Love Your Stuff, Can Christmas Still Really Change the World ?Buy Nothing DayTop 10 Anti-Consumerist Must Haves

Photo by USACEPublicAffairs, via Flickr

E-Waste Pollution

How many mobile phones have you owned in your life ?

How about computers, video games consoles, monitors, TVs, stereos, speakers, video recorders, microwaves, printers, scanners, fax machines, DVD players ?

We carefully put them in the e-waste skip for recycling at the local dump – but where do they go after that ?

The sad truth is that it’s far more profitable to ship electronic waste to places like Nigeria, GhanaIndia and China for recycling and recovery of valuable metals, than it is to do it in the UK, Europe or the US.

Regulations now exist to prevent such trans-boundary shipments of e-waste, but these are not always effective.

Why ?

Because labour costs are cheap and environmental protection for this highly polluting process is often non-existent in the developing world.

In the language of economics, the pollution and health of the workers involved are ‘externalities‘ – not borne by the process, when waste is shipped to the developing world.

The city of Guiyu is the center of China’s e-waste recyling. It is, by any standard, a dirty and polluted place, with numerous health problems affecting it’s 200,000 poor migrant workers. Guiyu is no longer able to grow rice due to widespread pollution, and local water sources have become largely undrinkable.

It might be tempting to think of this of just another far off polluted place, tragic for the people involved, but nothing to do with us.

But it’s our thrown away surplus ‘stuff’ they’re sorting through – burning and recycling on our behalf. It’s our consumption habits, and our unwillingness to want to pay for the ‘externalities’ of  their pollution and health problems, that is to blame.

WHAT CAN WE DO ?

Take a look through THESE PHOTOS and see if you can spot any of your old gear . . . then consider ‘nudging’ the government to tighten-up regulation, electronics producers to tighten-up their return systems, and also yourself – to question whether you really need that upgrade just yet, or at least, if you do, to send your old phone or computer to a proper new home.

 

Photo by Wikicommons, via Flickr

RELATED ARTICLES – The Fate of the World, The Most Polluted Place on Earth

Living on a Landfill

In the rich West we usually forget where all the waste we throw away ends up, unless there is a landfill site not too far away from our house, in which case we might be concerned about potential health consequences, or the occasional unpleasant smell.

Yet around the globe hundreds of thousands of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people, including many children, live and work on landfills and rubbish dumps, scraping a living from what the rich of their own societies throw away.

All live in desperate poverty with little in the way of health care or education, most are illiterate, and some will never have ever left the landfill on which they live.

In Indonesia over 2,000 families survive and make a living on the Bantar Gebang landfill outside Jakarta, typically earning the equivalent of £2.20 a day from the recyclables they scavenge. In Nicaragua, over a 1,00o people live and work on the huge La Chureca landfill, in a community which includes a school. At the Stung Meanchey landfill in Cambodia, 2,000 resident workers, more than 600 of them children, work, live, eat and play among the rubbish.

The disturbing winner of the CIWEM Environmental Photographer of the year 2011 competition depicts two young children clutching each other on a landfill in Kathmandu, Nepal. In the words of the photographer, Chan Kwok Hung:

“Every day they searched the junkyard for something useful that they can resell for money so they can buy food. If they don’t find anything their grandmother blamed them seriously. Unfortunately, they had found nothing for a few days, the little boy felt very hungry. I gave them some money and a biscuit after taking this photo. But who knows who will help them afterwards.”

The videos below show a child’s eye view of a life lived on two of the world’s landfills.

Photo by Marco Bullucci via Flickr

RELATED ARTICLES – Life in Mathare, The World Through Your Screen

Moving Mountains: Hunger and Waste in an Age of Austerity

Natalie Holmes lives and works in Berlin. She loves learning German, birdwatching and travelling by train, in between working as a  writer. A keen environmentalist, Natalie writes about sustainability and responsible travel on her blog, The Horseshoe Nail. 

One grim irony – and there are many – of the international debt crisis, aside from the obvious problems of limitless growth within finite resources, is that despite global attempts at austerity, waste continues to occur at unimaginable levels.

Italy, for example, whose debt mountain is the second largest in Europe, wastes over 30 per cent of its food, which works out at about $53 million. Reducing waste certainly won’t be the dynamite that blows a hole through that mountain of debt, which is a mind-boggling €240bn this year alone, but it will make a small dent, and surely save as much as some other individual austerity measures already suggested or implemented. It is not just Italy where this happens.  The US wastes the equivalent of 350 million barrels of oil a year in uneaten food.  In the UK, half the food produced on farms is thrown away, amounting to an eye-watering £20bn food mountain.

So why does such waste happen?

Firstly, consumers are led by omnipotent advertisers to believe that appearance is an indicator of quality. The UN Food & Agriculture Organisation advises people to consider safety, nutrition and taste of food rather than the way it looks. An outrageous amount of perfectly edible produce gets discarded daily because it looks ‘off’, or in other words, not the technicolour stuff we’ve become accustomed to seeing in ads (and on the shelves). That freegans can survive almost solely on the contents of skips outside supermarkets is testament to the senseless waste that occurs in the name of aesthetics. In addition, consumers are urged to buy much more than they need, whether it be larger portion sizes in restaurants or two-for-one offers in shops.  Financial efficiency has been so misaligned that it actually became, in many cases, cheaper to waste food than to just buy what was needed.

In the end, of course, just as with homes, loans and everything else, there comes a point when the bubble bursts.

The sudden gaping hole, never invisible but until now ignored,  between the abstract ‘market’ and concrete reality threatens to swallow us all. We can no longer afford to waste. Food, money, resources, time are all precious and we must use them wisely.  This is arguably more important right now than ever before.

Instead of amending or fixing the system that got us into this mess, it seems like those in charge are building it up again identically, brick by brick; taking back their abusive but irresistible lover, hoping this time things’ll be different.

The waste that uncapped capitalism encourages continues, as does environmental degradation and widening social inequality.  That people in Somalia (and across the developing world, for that matter) starve to death in droves while Italy alone wastes  food that could produce 580 million meals a year is nothing short of obscene. “Try asking those people trekking across the Somali wastelands what austerity looks like.” Dan Hodges movingly blogged, asking why, in our modern world,  people can still starve to death. It’s certainly not for moral or logistical reasons, he points out, and if we can fund humanitarian intervention in Libya and other Middle Eastern countries, then why not Africa?

Sadly, I’d argue that it’s because we’re rebuilding a broken machine, one that is self-interested and self-governing.

There is undoubtedly aid ready to go into Somalia, but without governments providing security in this volatile region, there is no way to safely get it to those who need it. The bottomless pockets of cash that were available for Iraq and Afghanistan have mysteriously dried up.

Is it too cynical to assume that this is because Somalia, unlike the Middle East, has few natural resources worth exploiting?

Similar articles – Play Nice and Share, Scrape Your Plate

Photo by Sporkist, via Flickr