This is a set of inspirations, ideas and other pointers for our approach to the Horizon Europe call for proposals “Increasing the circularity in textiles, plastics and/or electronics value chains”.
This text is by request from @alberto, and as requested, the sections below are about including citizens, prosumers and hackers into the proposed research project and into circular economy processes. But it’s not a ready-to-go concept at all – I just didn’t have any bright idea for a project concept this time. So the below is a collection of inspirations to think about and work into a concept.
Repair Cafés are regular events at hackerspaces, makerspaces and similar tinker culture establishments that provide a low barrier to outsiders. It’s an invitation for people to come with their broken stuff, and there will be tools and hackers to help them repair their things.
These groups can become really dedicated. I once read about a group of old electronics hackers in an Australian hackerspace, dedicated just to power supply repair as their specialty. With that kind of dedication and experience, they hardly have to give up on any power supply.
This system has its limits, of course. There is only as much repair that people can offer outside the commercial system, since everyone has bills to pay. But repair is the obviously right environmental approach to resource overconsumption, and it is the task of policy-makers to make repair also economically viable.
Which they have not done at all so far. The whole consumption-optimized environment is so far just hostile to remanufacturing and repair – I should know, as we did run a recommerce website for mobile phones, tablets and digital cameras for close to two years, and finally had to close it because it was not commercially viable. In that context, it’s nearly funny that the concerned HEurope call lists “[i]ncreased […] uptake of repair, reuse and remanufacturing” as an intended outcome. This was your job, policy makers …
Neighborhood Object Filtering
For this one, I have to explain my background a bit. Here’s a (part of) the storage section in my truck home:
The highlights are for everything that I did not buy but instead acquire for free from broken and out-of-use items, often by disassembling them. All this is not useless junk; I regularly use parts from my “collection” for repairs and modifications, even though a collection has to be quite substantial to start becoming useful like that.
I call this system “object filtering”. When something breaks, I “filter” its parts, separating them into reusable parts (“filtrate”) and unusable parts (“residue”). I then store and re-use the reusable ones. This process is fractal, as it is repeated when any of the reused parts breaks.
Here’s an example pathway, for an object that broke recently:
- It starts with a broken DC-DC power adapter of my notebook.
- The power adapter donates its output and input side cables with plugs, its collection of DC tips, and (if reusable enough) its case.
- Now let’s say, one of the cables is reused and after some use, develops an intermittent contact near the plug. Then the plug is cut off and given to recycling, while the cable itself is stored and reused, for example to replace a device cable.
- Once the cable itself becomes damaged through continued use, I will cut it open and extract the smaller insulated wires in there. They are of good use in car electrics.
- Using the wires means cutting them to size, and that will gradually shorten them, until the shortest wires may end up for use in electronics projects, where they are still useful.
- Once a wire is too short even for use on a PCB, I may cut open some of them to extract the fine copper braid wire. It is of good use as desoldering braid (to remove liquid solder when removing a broken component from an electronics board).
- At this point, I don’t have a further use, so the wire with solder would go to electronics recycling.
Object filtering is not limited to electronics, of course. In the picture above, it does not stop with the electronics parts in the boxes, there are other examples in it:
- The green aluminium boxes are upcycled military electronic cabinets from the mid-1980s. (Actually, these are great. Dustproof, waterproof, side-opening aluminium boxes. Move over, Zarges box )
- The small cardboard boxes in the upper box are leftovers from an electronics recommerce shop we operated in 2009-2010.
- Similarly, the white labels are cut-down DHL postage labels we had over from that recommerce operation in the hundreds.
- The bottom-left white can is a cut-down single use can, the type in which I receive the ethanol for my kitchen stove.
- For storage organization inside many of the boxes, I use plastic bags (reused of course) together with a special figure-eight rubber ring that I make from unrepairable bicycle inner tubes, cut into slices.
So yea, I do object filtering for everything. What makes this so different from the industrial circular economy is that it’s optimized not so much towards full resource recovery but towards slowing down the cycle time of these circular economy cycles. That’s good, because industrial recycling is far from perfect, making a fully circular economy a kind of pipe dream for many types of materials, including the ones in this call (textiles, plastics and electronics).
So I’d rather propose the concept of a “circulation economy”: an economy that keeps materials in circulation for as long as possible, rather than trashing and recycling things again as fast as possible. And circulation time is quite good with the above object filtration system of gradual disassembly and re-use, where every part keeps its integrity and use value for as long as possible. In relation to the HEurope call for applications, the “circulation economy” would fit the targeted outcome “Increased upcycling and recycling rates for the targeted material streams”. Because upcycling is what this does …
Now the new thing I want to propose here is to have this kind of system on a neighborhood level. That would enable even more and better uses for many parts, as other people will have other skills for reuse and repurposing, and will need other stuff. It also makes it meaningful to have more local recycling technology around, for example a foundry for aluminium, brass and copper casting (a widespread hobby, judging from YouTube) and the Precious Plastic machines for making own recycled plastic products.
Such a neighborhood recycling center would be a dream come true for me: just come with some broken stuff, or working stuff you don’t need anymore, and barter it for anything you like from 200 tons of material. One simple way to implement it would be via a separate trashbin for “local object filtration”. Place things in there, and they go to the neighborhood recycling center automatically, and the user is rewarded with credits for their next “shopping trip” in the recycling center. This would also make use ofteh large amount of objects that are fully functional but just too cheap for people to care selling them on the second-hand market.
Products that are valuable and useful enough can and will be restored to use, even after a long time. It can be argued that restoration is salvation for products: they’ll live forever …
The historic car scene may serve as an example. It can also be about old machines – many designs for industrial machines did not change much mechanically in more than 70 years, and modern control electronics are an easy add-on. As an example, here’s our coffee roaster restoration project:
Restoration is a kind of celebrated sub-genre on YouTube already. For a popular example, have a look at the “my mechanics” channel.
This embrace by mainstream culture is interesting, because restoration is the opposite of consumption, and mainstream culture is about consumption. I am wondering if and how this cultural tweak could be leveraged to also make the circular economy “hip” and mainstream?
Vintage clothing culture
That’s the fashion equivalent of restoration, and it also has an online following already (compare Vinted, a large German online marketplace for vintage and second-hand clothing).
Same question: how to use the cultural impulse obvious in vintage clothing culture to make upcycling, recycling, used look etc. mainstream in fashion.
Cultural innovation opportunities
From my lived experience I would argue that Western mainstream culture is the biggest obstacle to the adoption of a grassroots circular economy. And here, mostly three things: (1) obsession with a “like-new” visual impression, to the extent that a normal-used look is called “ugly” and “disgusting”; (2) the scare culture of companies placing all kinds of warnings against opening or modifying products, and people believing these warnings; and (3) the banality of evil inherent in throwing good-to-use products into the trash. It is currently a culturally accepted and legal practice that is not exposed to public scrutiny and that can be easily justified to the self.
What I’d like to see is cultural innovation, perhaps organized as a kind of European competition, to change these cultural failures around. How about product repair as a school subject, for example.