The climate emergency is a result of the sheer weight of human economic activity on the biosphere. Extraction of resources and the production of waste is responsible in part for the destruction of habitats, which in turn has created conditions for the greater spread of diseases between other animals and people. It is a cycle which must be broken if we are to create safer living conditions, and achieve a rapid transition to end the climate emergency. The circular economy is an antidote to ‘extractivism’, when coupled with an overall reduction in the scale of economic activity in high consuming populations. Under lockdown many have been reminded of the scope for repair, remaking and repurposing goods. Evidence suggests it urgently needs to become the new norm, and could quickly do so.
The global population makes, uses and breaks a huge amount of stuff every year and there is a growing understanding that there is nowhere to throw it “away”. According to the World Bank’s 2018 What a Waste 2.0 report, the world generates 2.01 billion tonnes of municipal solid waste annually, with at least 33% of that not managed in an environmentally safe manner. There are also 25 trillion pieces of plastic debris in the ocean. Of that, 269,000 tonnes float on the surface, while some four billion plastic microfibers per square kilometer litter the deep sea. As plastic particles find their way into our food-chains and face masks become unavailable because stocks are low and they are all made in China, we are starting to recognise the importance of how – and where – things are made.
There are, however, some existing viable innovations that are already changing the way we manufacture, think about and dispose of (or not) our material possessions. Together, they form a sizeable step toward rapid transition, particularly because they address long-term behaviour and not just immediate consumption. From designers working to make products that create zero waste, to local DIY-ers extending the life of existing products by repairing them, these examples show that norms can shift. Supported by legislation that encourages sustainable production, it is possible to move quickly away from a disposable society to one that enjoys and treasures material things without constantly craving new ones.
At the same time as modern manufacturing processes sped up and science brought plastic to the fore, innovative thinkers were already imagining how to tackle the inevitable waste that would result. In the 1970s, Swiss architect Walter Stahel coined the phrase “cradle to cradle” – describing manufacturing products in a truly sustainable fashion so that they are designed for minimum impact on the environment. This was further developed by academics, activists and business people to different degrees, with the aim of reducing the impact on the planet of our producing stuff.
The UK Body Shop’s Anita Roddick was an early example of someone who successfully brought to market products that considered their origin, the labour used to make them, the packaging used to hold them and their disposal after use through refilling or recycling. The US carpet tile company Interface, again led by a forward thinking chief executive, Ray Anderson, showed that sustainability can be built into mainstream commercial products by building a closed loop system. The company set targets in 1994 to be zero waste by 2020: today 89% of their sites operate with renewable energy and 60% of all raw materials for carpets come from recycled or biobased sources.
Today, many companies are promoting their sustainable credentials, from BMW to British Sugar. Some of these are making sincere efforts, but for most publicly listed firms, financial performance still trumps other considerations. Meanwhile, a huge array of – mostly smaller, younger – companies are also emerging to make goods in a more sustainable way, pay fair wages, are conscious of their energy use and use recycled or recyclable materials. For example, the UK’s Woolly Shepherd collects wool that would otherwise be wasted and uses it to make acoustic clouds to absorb noise in classrooms, offices and homes. The products are designed to be made by hand, can be disassembled and components reused or left to biodegrade at the end of their life.
There is also a movement to slow down the treadmill of consumption by making the repair of existing products easier. A ground-breaking plan is currently being presented to the European Commission to ensure that products are designed and manufactured to last – and are repairable if they go wrong. The new rules will apply to a range of everyday items such as mobile phones, textiles, electronics, batteries, construction and packaging. The “right to repair” movement has grown, as manufacturing trends have made it increasingly difficult for broken products to be mended, updated or added to in any way – either physically because they are glued together, or legally, because “unauthorised” repair can invalidate warranties. These EU regulations are part of the wider Circular Economy Action Plan, which is also pushing for increased recycled content in products; reducing the impact of products on the climate and environment; and providing incentives for a new type of consumer use and ownership that is closer to leasing.
These examples are interesting because they illustrate how most of the shift lies in the will – personal or political – to change, and the ability to take others with you. Finding solutions does not seem to be the problem. For example, the Wales-based family firm of jeans makers, Hiut, took over a failed factory that had been making 35,000 pairs of jeans a week. They now make approximately 120 pairs of jeans each week – each pair is skillfully made by a highly trained ‘Grand Master’ and takes about 1 hour 10 mins to make, compared to the 11 minutes of some bigger factories. The resulting jeans are expensive – at £150-200 per pair. However, Hiut offer free repairs on the wear and tear of their jeans, keeping them in use for many years. This is a case of changing a business model to make a longer term commitment to staff and customers. The company also works a 4-day week and if the weather is particularly good they may just take off and go surfing – certainly not a life / work balance that would be tolerated in traditional manufacturing. This illustrates a changing view of products, from a fast fashion poorly made item for short-term use, to almost renting a product long-term, or consciously investing in something with longevity. Of course, these sorts of products can be expensive and require borrowing, or saving – which was common practice in human history before the advent of mass consumerism – but which is increasingly difficult across all income brackets today. Systems of rental or hire purchase need to be developed which are viable for those on lower incomes. But there are schemes, such as Furniture Recycling Projects – which prevent waste going into landfill sites, create employment, and make goods available to low income households who might not otherwise be able to afford them. Where certain household goods are concerned, it is worth remembering that until 30 years ago, many consumer electronics were rented rather than purchased outright.
The EU right to repair legislation is important because it seems to be placing the sustainability of a product ahead of the company’s profit. Companies will specifically not be allowed to build in obsolescence to their products and components will need to be assembled in a way to enable replacement of faulty parts. In the US, citizens have also used their might to push back against manufacturers: 86% of voters in Massachusetts overrode the car companies and passed the automobile owners’ Right to Repair law in November 2012; 114,322 Americans signed a petition to legalize cell phone unlocking and in October 2018, the US Copyright Office granted a three-year exemption to allow it; and over 3 million people have joined the iFixit website to teach each other how to repair their own stuff. Their website sells kits to repair proprietary phones, watches and laptops along with detailed video tuition.
In 1987, ex-Greenpeace activist and academic, Dr. Michael Braungart founded the Environmental Protection Encouragement Agency (EPEA) in Hamburg to focus on products oriented toward a life-cycle economy. He eschewed the reduce, reuse, recycle model in favour of “upcycling”, based on a system of “lifecycle development”. Since then, various ways of calculating a product’s life-cycle impact on the environment have been devised. Widely recognized procedures for conducting Life Cycle Analysis (LCAs) are now included in the 14000 series of environmental management standards of the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO), in particular, in ISO 14040 and ISO 14044.
The world-famous yachtswoman, Ellen Macarthur, through her UK-based Foundation, has taken these ideas further using the concept of the Circular Economy, designing out waste and pollution. She believes that design is an iterative process that never finishes; “You should constantly be testing and refining as you understand how your users interact with your design, and how it fits within the wider system.” Our current system does not punish profligate use of resources in any way; it expects the market to solve that one. It is only just starting to punish the production of waste. Landfill taxes are one way to do that. Another precedent is the EU’s End of Life Vehicles Directive which requires manufacturers to provide a service to take back old cars and recycle components.
Until environmental damage becomes a real cost – wherever in the world it happens and at whatever part of the supply or disposal chain – there are insufficient incentives to encourage manufacturers to add in the end of life cost of a product. Currently it is the world’s poorest who pay this price.
Stockpiled in Bangladesh, for example, are 79,000 tonnes of asbestos, 240,000 tonnes of PCBs and 210,000 tonnes of ozone-depleting substances. And the vast Jam Chakro dumpsite in Pakistan covers 202 hectares and affects the life and health of 5 million people. Guiyu in China may currently be the world’s largest e-waste dump with 700 tons of trashed electronics arriving there per year.
Some activists and thinkers are advocating for a fundamental change in the way we look at our belongings. In 2012, a small pamphlet came out with a short manifesto for “New Materialism” that was perhaps ahead of its time, but seems right on trend today, suggesting a new way of looking at the ownership of objects in order to reduce consumption and increase enjoyment:
This describes a pattern of consumption characterised by less passive consumerism and more active production, making, adapting, mending, sharing and all the ‘re-s’ such as: re-use, recycle, re-love, re-purpose, etc. The Transition Town movement has adopted much of this, advocating the sharing of skills that extend the life of objects – such as repairing clothes and household goods, making do and mending rather than throwing away. They have helped inspire and set up repair cafes across their network, including places to share items that are only used occasionally. In Britain, the sharing market is estimated to be worth £22 billion and 80 percent of people there say that sharing makes them happier. 1 in 6 people already opt to hire over buying when considering whether to hire or buy an item they might only use a few times.
Government targets for recycling and the declaration of climate emergencies around the world have sharpened people’s minds, but it has been campaigns by environmentalists that have really forced these issues into the mainstream. Individuals and groups of people with foresight and a personal passion to save the environment have undoubtedly been important in helping to shape a more sustainable future of stuff. These include a small number of individual business people driven by motives other than profit, social movements such as Transition Towns, conservationists like David Attenborough drawing attention to the damage to the natural world, indigenous rights advocates like Chief Raoni Metuktire of the Amazon Kayapó tribe and innovators such as yachtswoman Ellen Macarthur.
As global just-in-time manufacturing became the norm, and it became progressively harder to find a repair shop for products that people knew were mendable, frustration has been growing that products seem to break more quickly and many shoppers do not like being told that it is cheaper and more convenient to replace something than to upgrade it. The growing lack of repair or upgrade options has caused many people to start setting up their own, to swap or resell goods via social media or freecycle, and to use Youtube’s knowledge sharing capacity to learn from others how to bypass the system. From how to refill a toner cartridge yourself to how to make a greenhouse out of old plastic bottles, it’s all available at the touch of a button thanks to the human desire to share. This technology has perhaps reduced our dependence on learning from older people in our own communities, but nevertheless it is an enormous, free resource for good.
There is also anger from citizens about recycling, or the lack of it. Processes are opaque and confusing, with very few people recycling as much as they could because the system is too complicated. And this really matters: the US recycling rate is currently around 35% but if the rate were 75%, the effect would be like removing 50 million passenger cars from the roads. There is also horror at seeing children far away picking over vast rubbish dumps of our waste for survival. Politically, this horror could be mixed with the anger at the loss of manufacturing industries in the global North, and the vulnerability of just-in-time supply chains made visible by the corona virus pandemic, to cause us to reconsider making stuff closer to home. Hands-on activity has been shown to be good for us and if we bought fewer items of better quality, supported by hire purchase schemes for those without capital, we might slow down the deadly cycle of consumption. Perhaps we could even slip back into consuming less than one earth’s worth of resources.