Greetings, fellow Terran!
This is the fifth edition of Greenwhile, a periodical highlighting some of the people, projects and companies concerned with one of the most complex challenges we've ever faced: how to get our shit together before the planet "shakes us off like a bad case of fleas".
As old as it may be, recycling is no panacea. Even when conditions are optimal, that is, the materials are not contaminated or inseparable, the process requires energy (which could be dirty) and water – and rarely result in a product of the same quality.
Therefore, we must prioritise the two Rs that come before recycling in the waste hierarchy: reduce and reuse. Today we'll tackle reuse, a practice that can save you a bit of money and boost your out-of-the-box thinking.
Let's start by making a distinction between conventional reuse and creative reuse. The former translates into reusing an item for its original purpose (e.g.: refilling printer cartridges, returning glass bottles to the supermarket, handing down clothes, etc.). The latter involves giving new life to an item by converting it, without breaking it down, into something else (e.g.: using tyres as swings or flower pots, bottles as lamps, toothbrushes as cleaning brushes, etc.).
Equipped with a god-knows-how-old keyboard, a ten-year-old mouse, and a modular computer I'm hoping to use for at least a decade, I'll tell you a thing or two about: how my family approaches reuse (and why); the importance of getting as much use of your electronics as possible; and why reusing should be fashionable.
Reuse was such a big part of my childhood in Brazil I always took it for granted, and only after 14 years living abroad did I notice how pervasive this practice is in my family's everyday life.
Take my mother's home, for instance: every single glass and plastic container that pops up is washed and reused to store stuff like coffee beans, condiments, dressings, sauces, cleaning products, and clothespins; old t-shirts, boxers, socks and blouses become cleaning cloths; aseptic cartons, which are notoriously difficult to recycle, are cleaned, cut and donated to an NGO that uses them as insulation panels; and the list goes on.
I see a strong link between my mother's (and many other Brazilians') love for reuse and the country's more often than not troubled economy. In fact, I bet the same is true of pretty much every other developing nation on the planet. Unfortunately, the only relevant research (PDF) I could find to back my theory is behind a paywall.
That study mentions an ongoing decrease in reuse practices in developing countries, tied to increases in the purchasing power of their citizens. I happen to have anecdotal evidence to confirm this, which pretty much any Brazilian you know could confirm.
Up until recently, a popular cheese spread known as requeijão was sold in glass containers. Unlike a mayo jar this was very much like a drinking glass, so once the spread was gone folks would remove the label, wash the container, and use it as a drinking glass. However, as many in Brazil became less poor (and more condescending, if I may add) the requeijão glass became a symbol of poverty. Offering your guests a drink of water in a requeijão glass would be considered a faux pas. 🙄
If Amsterdam’s hipster culture is any indication, though, reusing stuff will soon be cooler than buying new. And maybe in a few years my compatriots will proudly toast their repurposing skills with ice-cold beers in requeijão glasses.
A cracked screen, a busted charging port, a brief but brutal swim in the toilet… it may not be broken beyond repair, and yet it might as well be. Repairing the vast majority of smartphones is a very complex matter these days.
In fact, none of the 20 most repairable phones listed by iFixit, a how-to website famous for their repairability scores, were manufactured in 2020. And only one of the top 20 is made by Apple. Take away Fairphone’s environmentally friendly devices and the latest phone with a decent-enough score is from 2017.
The practice of designing products with a limited useful life has a name: planned obsolescence – and preventing repairs is only one of its manifestations.
Fortunately there are steps you can take to fight back, both as a consumer and as a member of society. You can start by making a savvier purchase next time you’re in need of an electronic device, be it new or refurbished. Make sure to read about its durability and keep an eye out for update policies too, as even a brand new smartphone may be supported for a mere one or two years.
If you’re considering replacing something only partially broken, don’t. Getting it fixed may cost you surprisingly little, while also delaying the addition of yet another item to the colossal pile of end-of-life electronics in need of recycling – or to the even more colossal 80% that’s not recycled.
Finally, voting with your wallet isn’t enough. Find out if your government has rules and regulations regarding e-waste and the right to repair. Earlier this year the European Union (EU) moved to make this a reality, compelling companies to follow strict rules in terms of repairability, recyclability and the availability of spare parts.
It's easy to forget that plastic carrier bags used to be all over the place. Six years after the EU's original Plastic Bags Directive, the vast majority of member countries have a ban (be it full or partial) and/or taxes or charges on single-use bags. Several nations in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, Africa and Latin America have similar policies.
The very first country to enact such a ban, years before the EU and even China, was Bangladesh ‒ back in 2002. Although it was already part of the solution almost two decades ago, this small but populous country is very much part of the problem when it comes to a different single-use nightmare: fast fashion.
In terms of statistics, separating fast fashion from its slower-paced peers is not trivial. Knowing some of the footwear and apparel industry's figures is crucial for this discussion, though, so here they are1:
CO2 = up to 10% of total global emissions2, more than the climate impact of the entire European Union
Water = 93 billion cubic metres yearly (it takes 3,781 litres of water to make a single pair of jeans)
Wastewater = almost 20% worldwide, due to fabric dyeing and treatment
This is bad enough when the final product is a garment that will get plenty of use (perhaps even handed down), and was manufactured by a well-paid worker in a healthy and safe environment. However, this is the exact opposite of what fast-fashion brands such as H&M, Zara, Primark and Uniqlo stand for. Here too there's a link between economic growth and loss of appetite for reuse – clothing utilisation in China had already decreased by 70% in 2017, over the previous 15 years3.
Since the fast-fashion industry is engaged in a race to the bottom, at the cost of their workers' well being and our limited natural resources, governments must come up with legislation to address the issue; as many did to tackle pollution caused by free or dirt-cheap plastic bags.
In the meantime, be clever with what you buy – from the integrity of its fabric to the integrity of the companies behind it. Even better: your wardrobe hasn't really featured in a lot of live events lately, so avoid buying new clothes. There's plenty of second-hand stuff around, and one can even rent a pair of jeans these days!
Before the grumpy old man inside me tells you to do you know what, I'd like to highlight a truly brilliant initiative by the Brazilian government. Lately there haven't been many of those, but hey, credit where credit is due, right?
Reuse.gov, developed by the Ministry of Economy, is “a tool that reduces bureaucracy and ensures transparency in the processes of incorporation and transfer of assets (...), optimising the management of public resources with conscious and sustainable consumption”. Great! But what does that mean?
Say, for instance, that your department has a couple of desks and computer monitors that are no longer needed. These goods can be listed on Reuse.gov, my department can claim them, and any Brazilian citizen with a connection to the Internet can audit the entire process. Cool, right?
Now, without further ado, get the hell off my lawn!
1 According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
2 Sustainability consulting group Quantis claims it's closer to 8%, while McKinsey & Company, a management consulting firm, and the Global Fashion Agenda, a sustainable advocacy organisation, claim it's 'only' 4%.