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The social circle we mustn’t overlook

When Mike Barry of M&S spoke at the WRAP annual conference last November a phrase which resonated with me was that of a ‘shared economy’.

Iain Gulland - Chief Executive, Zero Waste Scotland | 20 May 13

He spoke passionately about the fact that at the heart of M&S’s Plan A was important engagement work with their global supply chains on social justice and ethical trading.

The impact of our consumption is brought into sharp focus when there’s a tragedy like the Bangladesh factory collapse.  Our drive for environmental and economic resilience through a low carbon circular economy needs to be firmly built on a tenet of social justice regardless of where the circle falls. I fear this important principle is often lost in some of the rhetoric and clever infographics that clutter the conference landscape as we engage and debate the move towards a circular economy. I welcome the fact that the new language of economic renewal is gaining ground with boardrooms around the globe but this should not lose sight of the need to form our circles inclusively, making the most of resources for the common good not just the corporate bottom line.

Take the example of electrical goods. The growing appreciation of the amount of precious metals passing through our economy in discarded electrical and electronic equipment is probably the most tangible of stories at the moment. This is because a) we can tap into a rich seam of resources for economic gain; b) we can redesign some basic equipment so that the capture of these materials is easier and the reuse of key components is optimised; and c) better repair knowledge and skills can increase the lifespan of products. But what about d)? That electrical goods are commonplace; are at the heart of the convenience of everyday life; and offer economic and employment opportunities.

The leaders of Scotland’s developing Revolve network know that there is an increasing demand for basic household appliances here in Scotland, especially by those living in some of the most deprived communities. The ‘basket of goods’ updated every year to reflect basic standards of living and consumer trends now quite rightly include many electrical items: meeting the needs of families is about basic human dignity - a washing machine, a fridge and other household items many of us take for granted. 

I accept that some high-tech wizardry needs to be employed so that items are designed for deconstruction and the remanufacturing of components; and new avenues for repair can be explored.  Reports from the US indicate that there is now a fast developing repair industry as more and more people turn to fixing things through the use of open source manuals and guides on the internet such as ifixit.com.  Here in Europe, the provision of technical guides for electrical and electronic equipment put into the marketplace is a part of the WEEE Directive that is often overlooked. If these were centrally collated, authorised, and made more widely accessible, perhaps  a repair industry could also take off here?

But before we get fixated by the opportunity for repair and remanufacturing, what we know is that almost a quarter of the stuff entering the WEEE treatment process is still working. Anyone who has visited such a centre will be amazed at just how many items pass you on the conveyor belts with a label that says:  ‘This item still works – just needs a plug’.  So I am eagerly waiting on the results from some trials Zero Waste Scotland are doing in Fife, West Dunbartonshire  and Renfrewshire on options to increase the amount of reuse of deposited WEEE at Household Recycling Centres so that that more items can be returned to active service through local reuse organisations who provide essential appliances to people in need. Accepting that some of the appliances will require some basic repair and refurbishment, the trials are also seeking to support training and employment opportunities. 

This for me is an example of the ‘shared economy’ that Mike Barry spoke about. Something I’m sure that we would all support; something I’m convinced we all should support. So let’s not lose sight of the social dividend that can be reaped if we get our circles working right. 

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