“People are being persuaded to spend money we don’t have, on things we don’t need, to create impressions that won’t last, on people we don’t care about” Tim Jackson, TED
I have been watching a series of films made by the Culture, Materials & Design Anthropology students at UCL for a brief set by The Great Recovery around people’s personal ‘stuff’.
Their footage follows a middle aged married couple in their home in South London (above) juxtaposed with another film of a young professional living in a newly built shared apartment in Notting Hill. The students were quizzing the inhabitants about their possessions. The shot pans around the house in South London, which is piled high with stuff; intricately carved wooden heads from Africa, stuffed toy animals, audio equipment with its vast quantity of snaking wires, CDs, books and trinkets. Kitchen drawers opened exposing a myriad of objects deemed ‘too useful’ to throw away. One of the couple starts to talk: “I don’t have anything in my house that is not useful to me, I don’t like objects that have no particular function”.
In the second film we pan around the stark white walled room belonging to a young advertising professional. Objects have been carefully curated on the shelves; an unopened beer can; a bottle of whiskey; a vintage camera. All these objects relate to specific moments, reflecting history through their creases and scuffs, and held in a personal space. A stark contradiction when we pan through to the small shared kitchen where chaos rules. Piles of food packaging flows from the bins and the shared fridge is smaller than a bathroom cabinet.
Watching these films made me realise three things:
1. The way I define usefulness is not universal.
I could see no intrinsic use in most of the stuff that populated the first house – but the couple who lived there clearly did. As a designer this is a very interesting concept. Can a trinket carrying personal memories be deemed useful? People’s possessions are testimonies to their history and not everything has to be practical. We seem to be very good at building attachment to our objects. We like to customize our things, and we define ourselves through the brands we have around us. Brands use this desire to build entire campaigns enticing us to identify with their lifestyle and therefore buy whatever they are selling – its clever stuff.
2. Many newly built houses are not fit for purpose.
The 3-bedroom apartment in Notting Hill was a new development. It’s built-in kitchen was not, it seemed, designed to cook in; its fridge was so small it had no room for fresh vegetables and and there was a tiny amount of preparation space on the counters.
RIBA’s report ‘The Case for Space: The Size of England’s new homes‘ highlights that the average 1 bedroom home newly built in the UK is 4sqm short of the recommended minimum size. It puts this into perspective by relating it to our use of space; 4 sqm is enough to work at home on a computer comfortably or ample room for a single bed with a bedside table and a dressing table with a stool. 57% of the people they surveyed said they did not have enough storage for their possessions and 35% said they did not have enough space for their kitchen appliances.
3. Designers can’t predict the user experience.
Finally, the question I had posed to the students was giving different answers to that which I had expected. I had asked them to observe people’s disposal habits, but the films clearly showed how bad we seem to be at this, generally keeping things for as long as possible to the point where we border on hoarding. In fact the UK is seeing a rise in extreme hoarding and we now have dedicated helplines for those that suffer.
Even though I am nowhere near extreme, I have a clutter drawer where all manner of things are shoved out of sight. Things I don’t know where to put but can’t yet face to throw away end up there. It’s where my old mobile phones live side by side with forgotten plastic toys from kid’s party bags, old batteries and pens that no longer work. When I open this drawer I despair in the same way one woman in the films despaired when she went up into her loft and saw the boxes of unopened possessions still carefully packed from a move two years ago. It was so much easier to close the door and walk away.
Our hoarding habits are beginning to become an issue: We are squirreling away valuable resources. Research done by Hallam University as part of their ‘What’s in my stuff‘ project estimates that the UK have over 85 million old mobile phones stuffed into those drawers. We pull out excuses that we don’t know where to send them, still hold useful addresses/pictures/fond memories in them or keep them for our kids to play with. Each phone is made of approximately 40 different elements including Copper in the wiring, Indium in the touch screen and Gold in the circuit boards. These elements are becoming increasingly viable to recover as the price of metals and minerals increase. There is more gold in a ton of mobile phones (approx. 300g) than there is in a ton of mined rock from a gold mine (approx. 1 – 5g)
Our clutter drawers are filling up fast. It seems it much easier to design things without talking to the people who have to live with the stuff and eventually dispose of it and with little or no consideration as to where our finished products will end up: re-used, recovered or landfilled once we as consumers are finished with them.
Incredibly the design industry still seems unable to fully understand the subsequent impact of design decisions. In an age where the rising cost of resource and increasing nervousness around security of supply of these raw materials is affecting business decisions and where 80% of the environmental impact of products is pre-determined at concept design stage this surely needs attention.
By Sophie Thomas, Co-Director of Design, RSA
With thanks to MA Culture, Materials & Design, UCL
The next item in the firing line of our deconstruction series is an old phone. It’s been sitting at the bottom of a drawer, ‘just in case’ it was needed, but it hasn’t been used in a long, long time. This phone isn’t alone in being popped to one side for years on end. On average, each UK household has 2 unused or old mobile phones stored away somewhere. That’s a massive 49 million handsets that are simply sitting in our homes. So what actually are we storing in our cupboards (apart from a few text messages and an old photo of your cat?).
We took apart an old phone at a FairPhone workshop to try and find out.
Inside a basic old handset, we discovered layers of metal and circuit board, all made up of a huge 35 types of metal, including copper, tin, cobalt and gold. A recent study suggests that one tonne of ore from a gold mine produces just 5 grams of gold on average, whereas a tonne of discarded mobile phones can yield a massive 150 grams.
Digging a little deeper, we discovered that a tiny part of the phone – the capacitor – contains the element Tantalum. The name Tantalum comes from the metal’s unusual quality of repelling liquids, much like Tantalus, a figure in Greek mythology who was forced to stand in a pool of water that remained constantly out of reach when he tried to take a drink. Tantalum can be found in nearly all of our electrical goods – mobile phones, lap tops, hard drives, PlayStations… and the list goes on.
Derived from the metallic ore Coltan, which is mainly found in the Democratic Republic of Congo, its ‘medium risk’ labelling and its rising value has made Tantalum a huge catalyst in the on-going Congo war. A recent report by the UN has claimed that all the parties involved in the local civil war have been involved in the mining and sale of Coltan. In the province of Katanga alone, an estimated 150,000 work in the mines, including 50,000 children and young people, some as young as seven years old.
At this year’s 100% design, Mark Shayler looked in a little more detail at the global supply chain of our electrical goods, and revealed that up to 64% of the world’s Coltan supplies are estimated to come from the Congo. Now think back to those 49 million mobile handsets that are sitting unused around the country. If we were able to recover all of the Tantalum from these, we could make 49 million new mobile handsets that wouldn’t need to rely on a ‘conflict metal’.
FairPhone is working to bring a ‘fair’ smartphone onto the market. This means a phone that is made“entirely out of parts and utilised without harming individuals or the environment.” They are working to find new ways to produce these necessary raw materials by questioning every stage of the process; finding fair mines (or investing in their creation) and recycling our existing raw materials. If we could roll out this thinking beyond our mobile phones, and apply it to all of our electronics, questioning where elements have come from and where they will go, we will be one step closer to a circular economy.
It’s time that we all begin to question the products that we are consuming. To find out more about e-waste, try your hand at taking a mobile phone apart, and learn how you can make a difference, come to one our e-waste workshops at SWEEEP electronic recovery facility, Kent on the 16thNovember, or at S2S in Rotherham on the 21st November.
Why don’t you take something apart and see what you discover? To contribute to our deconstruction series, contact email@example.com
This post was originally published on the Great Recovery blog.
Here at The Great Recovery HQ we have been glued to our TV screens for the last few weeks watching BBC 2’s three part documentary series: Welcome to India. Over 1 in 6 of the world’s population live in India, and during the series we see the film crew follow a handful of ‘backstreet entrepreneurs’ who are all “learning to survive in a crowded world”.
In episode 1 we meet 23 year old Kaale who has moved from the countryside to the city of Kolkata in search of gold. Gold is a precious metal with huge cultural significance in India – it acts as insurance, and Indian housewives own an incredible 11% of the world’s gold stocks. That’s more than the USA, Germany and Switzerland put together. Kaale lives with 20 other men in a small room in Kolkata’s Jewellery district, and wakes at 3am every morning to begin work. The huge mass of goldsmiths who live and work in the area leave particles of gold on the street which falls off their clothes, hands and hair when they wash, and gathers with the dirt and dust. Kaale and his friends spend hours sweeping the streets and using traditional American gold panning techniques to extract the metal.
“When people look at the street, all they see is garbage… But we know what’s hiding here.”
During the hour long programme, we see Kaale taking his gold panning venture even further by lowering himself down the tiny drains of Kolkata, extracting sack loads of ‘sludge’ and selling it to Javed, whose family own a backstreet gold panning workshop on a disused bank of the River Ganges.
Here, Javed’s 20 employees work tirelessly to first dry the mud, then sieve and crush it into powder (the only mechanised part of the process) before using 19th century Californian techniques with a wooden board and water to massage the mud to trap gold particles in tiny grooves on the board. Mercury is added to the remaining mud to ‘stick’ to the gold, and this is moulded into ‘ranga’ balls which are heated to first drive off any impurities, then to melt off the mercury. All that remains is one final smelting with nitric acid and they are left with 24 carat gold! These tiny gold particles that could so easily be dismissed as lost are being meticulously sourced and implemented back into circulation.
In episode 2 we meet Kanye, who also works recycling metals, but on a much bigger scale. Mumbai is home to a cargo ship graveyard, and it is down to 16,000 workers to ‘butcher’ these 12,000 tonne ships from across the world. It is an extremely dangerous job – every part of the ginormous vessels is taken apart by hand. Not a bit of the boats go to waste. The reusable parts go to the market and supply the Indian construction industry with cheap recycled steel, and the bits that cannot be reused are turned into something else and sold on. Even the tiny specs of iron that gather on the floor are collected and sold on.
Moving away from metals, to plastic recycling: Johora lives with her 12 children and husband alongside the railway tracks in Kolkata. She has worked her way up from a rag-picker to business-woman, with 3 warehouses collecting, sorting and selling on empty plastic bottles. Her young son, who has a network of ‘suppliers’ (who scour rubbish tips, restaurant and shop refuse) and a rickshaw collects the bottles, and brings them back to the warehouses where 4 employees remove the labels and sort the bottles by colour. They are then bundled into huge balls weighing up to 100 kilos and sold by weight for around £50 each to the next link in the recycling chain. (Johora cheats a little here by filling the odd bottle with water to increase the weight!).
At the next stage of the recycling process, some of the bottles are shredded, and the ‘chips’ are sold to manufacturers of poly-synthetic fibres who can use them to make everything from polar fleece to the stuffing for your sofa cushions.
It’s thanks to businesses like Johora’s that India manages to recycle a massive 60% of all plastic bottles. We, on the other hand are not even close to this figure, this is what the UK aims to be recycling by 2020 – Europe currently recycle 48% of their plastic bottles, the US just 29%.
All of these examples encapsulate so well the ethos behind a circular economy, however the tragic part of this story is the fact that these people aren’t dredging mud out of drains or collecting plastic bottles because they care about the environment, for them it a necessity for survival: “Where you see trash, we see a livelihood”. It’s time that here in the west we began to realise that ‘trash’ shouldn’t really exist as a concept any more. Money can be made from the recycling and recovery process. What if we started collecting and selling all of our plastic bottles? What if recycling became more of a business than a chore?
This illegal ‘backstreet entrepreneurship’ can also be seen in San Francisco, where due to the California Bottle Bill of 1987 (which means a deposit is paid on all plastic and glass bottles sold in the state) recycling has become an extremely profitable business for gangs who raid recycling bins. In February’s edition of BBC 4’s ‘Costing the World’, Tom Heap meets a 78-year-old Vietnamese woman who has spent all night rummaging through bins to collect just £17 worth of recycling. While this illegal activity means that 78% of all waste in the city is diverted from landfill, imagine if we could make this a legitimate business model, instead of relying on those in desperate need to do the work for us, illegally. One of the main drivers for the Technology Strategy board putting up £1.25million for designers to come up with new approaches to the closed loop system are the rising cost of metals and other resources. China now own 97% of the Rare Earth market. We don’t use the words ‘sustainable’ or ‘eco’ as the drivers are now financial as well as moral.
One of the most interesting things to note about all of these stories is the networks that these people have. When Kaale decided to take extend his business to selling drain sludge, he knew exactly who to call who could process mud into gold. When Johora brought her own van so that she could sell her bottles on directly, she knew exactly where to take them to get the best price. It’s developing these networks that we need to build on. We need to make sure that we know where to take our goods to recycle them; we need to make sure we know a materials expert to consult when designing new products and we need to make sure we are building and using these networks at every stage of a products life span. We need to become a connected society.
(This blog was originally posted on the Great Recovery site)
When Sophie needed a new toothbrush, she was overwhelmed by the ridiculous choice of products available that all (give or take the odd tongue scrubber) do exactly the same thing. There are an awful lot of toothbrushes being made, and even more being thrown away. The NHS recommends that you “replace your brush or brush attachment every three months”. If we had all stuck to this advice in 2011, we would have thrown away 224.4 million toothbrushes in England and Wales alone.
So what happens to these toothbrushes when we throw them away? From the look of the one that Sophie found washed up on a beach, not a huge amount happens to them at all. Despite having been battered by the tides, this toothbrush looked in pretty good nick. So when these toothbrushes are sitting in landfill, they are doing just that. Sitting there. Wasted. All 224.4 million of them.
Then Sophie found a toothbrush that really puzzled her: A disposable electric toothbrush. The packaging clearly states to replace it after 3 months. It also carries the WEEE symbol, meaning that the consumer is responsible for ensuring the product is correctly recycled. But how? Sophie had no idea how to go about this. She couldn’t put it in with her regular recycling, and she didn’t want to just put it in the bin. So she took it apart!
Inside the toothbrush, along with a battery she found a motor, just like the ones that we have in our mobile phones to make them vibrate. The funny thing is, the motor wasn’t attached to the bristles. All this toothbrush does is make our hand vibrate.
She decided to send it to her friend Hywel at Sheffield Hallam University who took a closer look.
He found the plastic made up 85% of the weight of the tootbrush, and the motor alone was 10% of the total weight. Within this tiny 10% he has so far found the following ‘ingredients’:
This vast list is before we even get to the polymers used. These will contain fillers that he hasn’t yet measured, but titanium is likely to appear here.
The Royal Society of Chemists place Carbon and Tin as having a medium supply risk, and Tungsten and Neodymium as high. This means that if consumers don’t know how to recycle these small electrical items they fall through the gaps and these precious elements are locked in landfill, increasing the pressure on supply
The way to break this cycle is through systems thinking where everyone plays a role through the life cycle of the product, including the designer. Product designers could work with the design commissioner to make it easier to take the toothbrush apart (without the need for a saw!), packaging designers could work with supply chains to make recycling directions clearer, and government, brands and consumers could reassess the need for a disposable electric toothbrush in the first place,
Join us in our investigation into closed loop design. Why don’t you take something apart and see what you discover? (making sure you take the necessary safety precautions of course!) To contribute to our deconstruction series, contact Hilary.firstname.lastname@example.org or come along to one of our Great Recovery e-waste workshops, taking place throughout November.
This post was originally published on the Great Recovery blog.