Pointers for: Increasing the circularity in textiles, plastics, electronics

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

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:

  1. It starts with a broken DC-DC power adapter of my notebook.
  2. The power adapter donates its output and input side cables with plugs, its collection of DC tips, and (if reusable enough) its case.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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).
  7. 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 :grin:)
  • 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.

Restoration culture

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.

3 Likes

You are right Matthias, the concept for a research project is difficult to imagine and you get the point when referring to the issue of economic viability. New stuff is too cheap. I tried to get my son’s schoolbag repaired yesterday and the guy told me “why don’t you buy a new one?” And it’s not the first time I receive answers alike from those supposed to make business with repairing things. But, maybe, that is the question, what are the cultural (“pre-market” requisites) reasons why circularity don’t accelerate?
Maybe be more focused is another way to put it. I mean, choosing a sector for research. My contribution: the European Environment Agency tried to look at circularity business models in textiles. In my view this will be the new big thing, as in 2025 in the EU recycling textiles will be mandatory, traditional firms must find solutions and nobody has a precise idea of what to do. Take a look to the EEA report: https://www.eea.europa.eu/publications/a-framework-for-enabling-circular/a-framework-for-enabling-circular. QUID (https://www.quidorg.it) business model is working and also achieved some success in recovering the surplus fabrics in the textile district of Verona. QUID employs workers at risk of social exclusion, those workers transform the surplus fabrics into ready-to-sell garments for other firms (B2B) anche in 11 branded stores.
Hope this helps.

2 Likes

@matthias and @angelo, this is pure gold. Maybe this is me wielding a hammer and seeing nails everywhere, but it seems to be that we are saying this: the neighborhood is the smallest efficient scale at which to implement “repair and re-use” (quote signs because I am using the concept loosely for now). The idea is that a small minority of dedicated and skilled people can help a much larger number of people into more planet-friendly behavior. Repair cafés are, well, cafés: you walk past them, and then you know there is a course of action out there that was previously unavailable to you (as @janetgunter well knows). Same thing for tools libraries (as @yannick and others have experienced): this is not directly “circular”, but the availability of good quality tools reduces the dependence on buying new. The restoration scene has its own hubs and meeting points, etc.

And fashion – I am just grappling with this problem now, and do not have a good solution, even though I am very happy to buy boring, conservative stuff. The best I have found so far is an American company called Ministry of Supply that makes business shirts with a sort of deposit on them. When they get worn, you return them, get a credit for your next shirt, and they claim they can extract and reuse the polypropylene fibers. They also claim they use 100% solar power for their mill. But that is very unsatisfactory, because the company itself is in the US, it should be in Brussels. Bottom line is, if there were an anti-fast fashion local community, search costs would be shared across all of us.

What I would be interested in is studying uptake. Research question: how do community services like these drive uptake of reuse-and-repair practices? What stories about sustainability are generated in the process? What does this work look like from the point of view of those doing it?

I think this is a decent point of departure, no? @amelia, any thoughts?

1 Like

Localisation is key. I forgot to mention that I asked the lady that is leading QUID for the connection with the territory and she replied that the local business and social environment has been essential for their achievements (https://www.ansa.it/europa/notizie/sviluppo_sostenibile_digitale/2021/02/12/territorio-e-collaborazione-la-via-italiana-alleconomia-circolare_964bb993-c64f-47cf-9191-4cbc1cf73149.html)

1 Like

Tech-wise, neighborhood-scale, non-commercial operations are able to provide resource efficient circular economy services, easily more resource efficient than large-scale industrial operations. (Compare how gardens have consistently more yield per area than large-scale farming. By caring for the details, resource efficiency goes up and time and thus monetary efficiency goes down.)

The big challenge is that, over the longer term, all these non-commercial operations are just whimsical ideas when put into financial competition with industrial processes. It is not worth exploring these ideas as voluntarily adopted neighborhood offerings – that’s just greenwashing at best. It can’t last that way and would at most be a 1% mechanism of waste prevention and treatment.

So what’s needed is decisive policy support for neighborhood-scale circular economy services. Not sure by which measure, but it must really hit hard. Things like “to buy anything new, you have to prove that your local resource center did not have this thing used, and that they were not able to repair your broken thing”.

So, could we not explore that kind of future? Research questions: How would people behave if their city made neighborhood recycling, repurposing and reuse obligatory? How would people try to game the system? Which new social norms and conventions would develop?

You are now anticipating the results of the work. But yes, agree. Kim Stanley Robinson put it very nicely:

We have to figure out ways to pay ourselves to decarbonise as fast as possible, and to do all the other work needed to establish a sustainable civilisation.

The whole piece is worth reading (though not directly relevant to this call):

https://www.ft.com/content/ff94df96-b702-4e01-addd-f4253d0eecf6

Hmm… I think ethnography is bad at hypotheticals, for the same reasons why it is good at clear-eyed observation (“factfulness”, as Hans Rosling would have called it). You would need to reframe your RQ in terms of some obligations that already exist, and then observe how they are dealt with, and why.

1 Like

We now know a little more about the idea (Marina’s notes).

It is very similar to TREASURE: a set of interlocked industrial processes that increase the circularity of silk, by re-cycling industrial waste from silk production. Such waste comes from two sources:

  • a protein called sericin, which is the glue keeping together the silk fibers in the cocoon of the silk caterpillar. This is 20-30% of the cocoon in weight, and is not used in actual silk production (typically landfilled).
  • actual silk, which generates production waste when it gets cut into standard-size pieces.

Sericin can be reused in non-textile products, like electronic components.

The project is going to be quite large (~ 7 MEUR). Paolo agreed that we could have a fairly broad research question, looking at things like the values and practices of the environmentally aware part of the population. The main design issue concerns how broad vs. narrow to cast our net:

  • textile only vs. multisector
  • recycling only vs. reuse, repair and recycling

Thoughts?

Leaving this here: EEA’s policy briefing about textiles in the circular economy. Contains useful “hooks” to justify our work.

I’d say: textile only, but covering all sustainability practices (reuse, repair, repurposing, recycling, upcycling, whatnot).

Choosing “textile only” leads immediately to a well-defined target audience, namely the eco-conscious craftspeople that also congregate on platforms like Etsy. There are similarly well-defined communities for plastics (Precious Plastic community) and electronics (hackerspaces), but they usually don’t mix. It may be possible to mix them, and could be rewarding, but that would mean more outreach effort on our side (pending confirmation by @nadia).

Limiting the study to just “recycling” would not be very engaging, as recycling is a typically industrial process, while all other sustainability practices are typically DIY processes. Discussing only “recycling” would keep it in the abstract, such as exploring “attitudes towards recycling” as originally proposed in TREASURE. But when people can discuss their own inventions of re-using and repurposing textiles in their crafts and local production projects, it could be fun.

Yes! for an ethno RQ, you’d want to make sure you’re specifying your research participants — in this Q, it sounds like you’re talking from the POV of people running the services (also, you’ve already created a causal direction in your RQ, which should be avoided). In the other thread, it seems more about understanding why or why not people participate, and if not what would make them open to it. So just honing in (or making 2 RQs, one on the provision and one on the uptake) would improve it. Looks super interesting and timely. My anthropologist friend Flora, who Hugi has met, works on this stuff.

I was wondering how to set up an impactful research question? Everything related to GHG emissions is so time-critical now, even the research should feel like a wartime effort …

1 Like

Mike Agar would have said I am an incorrigible “hypothesis-testing researcher” :slight_smile:

I see community services as a sort of trellis, that help coagulate the people who care about that issue in that locale, and bring them within line of sight of each other. Take digital fabrication: it started with a handful of uber-nerds that you could not have prevented from tinkering. Then some of those started makerspaces, and a second tier of people who were also interested, but less resourceful (and perhaps also less motivated) then showed up and started to build tinkering skills. So I am interested in using these services as points of entry to talk to people in the space we are looking into – let’s call it “circular fashion” – and figure out why they care about it, what values are driving their interest, what they would like to see in fashion and why. “People in the circular fashion space” would be both the inner tier running the services and the outer tier of people using them.

This type of work would lead to an understanding of what early adopters of circular fashion would be willing to stand behind. In the project, this is important because it tells manufacturers what kinds of products to make (or not to make) in order to appeal to these early adopters. Hopefully this kind of attention will become more mainstream in a few years.

If I imagine myself as an informant, at this (very early) stage of my personal journey, I care for (1) durability and timelessness (so a kind of “negative design”, as little characterized as possible); (2) circularity (recycled and recyclable); (3) low logistics-related emissions (should be made and recycled physically close to me, rather than in China or the US).

So, reformulating the RQ: who are the people who are looking for an alternative to fast fashion? What are their values? What do they do, concretely, in order to uphold them?

Better?

1 Like

Ok everyone (esp. @marina @nadia @matthias @amelia) I have prepared a very generic memo for Paolo here. Based on his reaction, we can then start to translate it into activities, refine the research question, etc.

1 Like

Yep! And for this kind of proposal, possibly an intervention / contribution question like:
What innovations / technologies / resources could help them scale/improve/increase the impact of their practices?

1 Like

a great gal I met via the Hackteria network here, Corinne Mattner, does super fashion alts for beauty, fun and circularity… this might be inspirational for your aims… https://nosweatshop.ch/

1 Like