If things are harder to come by we value them more. This applies as much in economic terms as emotional ones. Our experiences of the last 15 weeks have changed many of our lives forever. According to a new poll only 6% of the British public want things to go back to how they were before the coronavirus crisis. Items and activities and freedoms we took for granted have been stifled, paused or removed altogether, and our perceptions are changing too. A lot has been said about the impact of ‘nature’ re-entering the void left by our enforced inactivity, about the importance of local produce and about how we need to step off this conveyor, for which someone has hit the large red emergency STOP button, and think about heading in a new direction and at a different pace.
We work in the waste and resource management sector.
‘Waste’ - to deal with problem materials and help protect public health – we cant underestimate the importance of this, the pandemic has highlighted it, and waste collectors and managers also have a key role in preventing overload of the NHS, by safe removal and disposal of infectious and unsanitary wastes. This has been practiced in an organised manner since the 1800’s and its health benefits are indisputable.
‘Resources’ - to reverse engineer value from finite materials that have relentlessly poured through the domestic, industrial and commercial waste systems. Reverse engineering is almost always an inefficient practice, and that is the case in our sector, despite many efforts. We struggle with delivery of optimum recycling collection systems, argue for this approach or that, hamstrung by the problem of the multitude of materials and composites that feature in our waste stream. If you were a builder trying to satisfy your customers - one of which wanted green tiles, another blue, another terracotta, and your builder merchant instead provided you with a skipful of ceramics taken from a mosaic of La Sagrada Familia, it might not be that straightforward to meet their needs. This is a problem grappled with by resource managers, seeking to derive clean, material specific recyclables that can be sold as raw materials into a more ‘circular economy’ model. We see the inefficiency in confusion from the public about what is recyclable, and in low quality mixed materials some of which struggle to find an outlet and are either disposed of, recovered for energy or in the worst cases not managed at all.
The end point of the system (post consumer) should be designed to flow into the start point of the system (product design and manufacture). Our builder’s merchant should only be left with colours that people want and in a form that they can use.
So back to the topic of valuing our resources and public perception. Many of us are re-evaluating our lives, and resources, both in terms of those that enter and exit our homes and the natural capital around us. Jarvis Cocker recently spoke about using an agricultural model of having ‘fallow periods’ where we step back and engage in environmental works for periods of time as part of our working dynamic, and ease away from the racing commercialisation and consumption culture. Thereby we benefit from the lessons of environmental improvements that we observe when the conveyor is switched off, or at least slowed down.
Lets keep up the pressure to ‘live better’ and this means challenging products and design – Government has an opportunity through the Environment Act and Extended Producer Responsibility to really shift the dynamic, harness the public mood and be bold.
It also means challenging lifestyles, but the world has already changed since March 2020, lifestyles have already been challenged. The polluter should pay, but the consumer should be provided with the options to live without being the polluter. We need to learn from nature and as Darwin said it isn’t the fittest that survive, but those most capable to evolve and change. And from our sector it starts with the principle that polluter pays, and pollution can mean the use of finite resources, the impact on our natural world from high energy use or damaging emissions. It starts with the clean design of services and products that deliver what we need but don’t comprise our finite materials and turn our resources to waste.