Of all the series at Winglewood, the ‘Waste Chase’ is the one that gives me the biggest spark!
That may come as a surprise given that waste can easily seem rather dull… and smelly. But I’ve always been fascinated by the way that things break back down and, if there was one word that could sum me up best I think it would be ‘resourceful’.
When I first imagined how this series might look I pictured a ‘Scrap Heap Challenge’ meets ‘The Apprentice’ -esque TV show, with the teams tasked at turning one business’ waste into a production line for a new product. (The more I’ve thought about that, the more I think we should make it a reality!)
Rather than seeing an object as the form that we might name it, I find a raw material. A resource. And that’s where the fun comes in; the creative challenge of turning problems into opportunities.
This can also lead to becoming a bit of a hoarder. The simple act of throwing things in the bin has always seemed challenging to me.
As a child I had one of those little pencil sharpeners, that keeps things all tidy with its own container for the sharpenings. Of course once that’s filled up you’ve got to empty it and I’m faced with this pot full of coils of wood. They have a variety of colours around their necks that form little waves.
I knew I was going to get into a mess here.
I had to take one out and admire it with my fingers, feeling how sharply the slice had been made. Such a thin slither of wood, and yet perfectly crisp and held together. It’s delicacy crumbled apart with the exploring of my sweaty hands, and my mind was made up. These were not going in the bin.
I carefully stored them in bags until my colouring in had given me enough to put them into use. Some sticky tape and a sheet of paper gave me all I needed to create my masterpiece. Rows of shavings laid on top of each other to form the fans of feathers within my collage of a bird. (I’m not sure if I finished. I have a tendency to jump to a new idea too quickly, so he may have remained headless?)
I know I’m dribbling on a bit here but, I’m trying to share what’s at the heart of this series. See, it’s not really about waste. It’s about imagination. Opening beyond the labels that we put to things and seeing them instead as pure potential.
If you can put this mindset to a tiny pencil sharpening, just think what happens when you zoom out. Now you’re going to wish you had a huge stockpile for storage! When you look at the world like this suddenly there could be no such thing as scarcity.
The Ambition For A Circular Economy
In society waste is a problem.
A huge chunk of the stuff we use has its day then ends up in the landfill (or worse the verges or oceans).
It’s a problem that’s amplified because much of the stuff we’re putting in the landfill comes from raw materials that took hundreds of millions of years to be produced. We’re running out of fossil fuels much, much sooner than we could hope for them to be replaced. Unfathomable lengths of time to be made, and the best we can do is fabricate a bit of tat we didn’t really need, then chuck it in a hole to sit among the other mounds of rubbish.
It’s a bit like being stranded in a desert, and pouring your last cup of water on to your shoe because it could do with a clean…
Anything that stalls the journey from extraction to dumping at the landfill will assist in extending the lifespan of our limited supplies.
Reduce, re-use, recycle.
Though the real ambition is to adjust that journey into a loop. To avoid the landfill altogether.
A circular economy or closed loop system would see resources flowing from manufacture to use and back in to manufacture or re-use again.
It would solve the problem from both ends. No running out of resources, and no mismanaged, damaging piles of waste.
It’s an idea that’s being explored in many fantastic ways. But, for it to be pulled off in a truly effective manner, requires a little more imagination than creating pictures out of sharpenings.
It requires the various groups within society to make some changes alongside one another.
Getting raw materials from creation, to item manufacturer, to shop, and then to consumer, is a lot of effort. But since that entire process is driven by consumer demand, profit is constantly pushing the cogs around.
Getting a used resource from consumer and back to item manufacture though poses an entirely different challenge. Money as an incentive no longer works the same, at least not as things are.
So finding ways to motivate the physical movement of waste is a big puzzle piece in closing the loop, but alongside it all has to be separated out.
Hindered by Variety –
There’s a huge mix of materials available to us and that range of options in itself brings about a considerable chunk of the challenge.
If everything was made of the same thing it would no doubt be easy to put in place a collection service that keeps it all moving. And facilities for reprocessing to put it back into use.
Of course having only one material would be undesirable, and absurd. But minimising the range of separation that’s required could be a very practical step.
And for that we need to consider how different materials relate to one another.
We all paid just about enough attention in our science classes to realise that everything is made up of various elements. Minerals, metals, building blocks that give things their unique properties.
But when we call a jumper a jumper (or a spade a spade) we rarely give mind to what it actually is.
Many fabrics are made from plastics.
Some from natural fibres.
And whatever item you consider that same divide will tend to be there.
When it comes to a circular economy the type of raw material used for an item will generally be far more significant than what we might name it. It’s the properties of that material that dictate how it can be processed.
The Material Divide.
Nature’s building blocks can be imagined as something similar to a lego set (just with tinier bricks and less plasticy).
When a plant grows blocks are absorbed from the air and sucked up from the soil and a new form is built. (The same thing happens with animals except the blocks are being eaten.)
If a plant is cut down and used within an item we keep, then the blocks remain within it.
But if the plant rots then the blocks are moved back to the air and the soil, and become available for building into something new.
This is all incredibly oversimplified, but it does serve for the point that I’m making.
With the ebb and flow of life, blocks are used and then returned in a manner that maintains a continuous, balanced cycle.
A cycle made possible due to the wonders of biodegrading.
When it comes to a circular economy, nature has it nailed.
But a dependency on fossil fuels breaks our cycle.
Although made of organic matter, the matter within oil has been stored within the earth for millions of years. When extracted and used an overwhelming influx of ‘blocks’ are released into the atmosphere. And these blocks didn’t come from our lego set.
They set everything off balance in a disruption that contributes to that modern headache we call ‘climate change’.
These blocks will linger problematically, and won’t be reusable again as oil any time in our lifetimes… (or perhaps the earth’s).
And to add to all this, plastics can’t biodegrade. That’s a devastating hit to any closed loop ambitions. The process of manufacturing polymers makes the material unrecognisable to the microorganisms that are usually responsible for all the breaking down of our blocks.
We have created ways to reprocess many of these materials, but only with great energy input.
When considering sustainability and a circular economy I’d say that materials should be thought of as two types.
There are those that come from our non-renewable oil, and those that don’t.
A core reason for having this discussion is because we’re in a world of depleting usable resources.
But I consider that to be false!
The Illusion of Scarcity
As explained above, nature can provide and process materials in a way that makes a closed loop a reality. The problem is that we’ve found a convenience in manufacturing out of our non-renewable oil. It’s quite marvelous how we’ve mastered transforming this black glup into all manner of shapes and textures and forms. There’s barely anything that can’t be made from it.
When you build vast industries and commercial chains upon a particular type of resource, it becomes the ‘modern’ option. The norm.
Sometimes it’s ‘better’ in the consumer’s mind because it’s high tech. Nearly always it’s ‘better’ because it’s cheaper. But values like these are only true from a particular viewpoint.
For a huge bulk of the stuff we manufacture from oil, it’s only used because it’s cheap. And it’s only cheap because that’s what we’ve set up our industries and economies for. Which is something we can change, and probably should do, because as our demands increase and the oil decreases, cheapness is not going to remain stable.
Materials are a huge part of this series.
Exploring ways that stuff grown out of the soil can replace our dependency on oil is exciting. It’s quite eye-opening in fact once you get into it.
I’ll be putting an emphasis on understanding the broad offerings that nature can provide, because this is Winglewood. At our core we investigate the concept that the closer we work in harmony with nature, the healthier and more supported our lives will be.
But the other chuck of the ‘Waste Chase’ is the challenge of moving all of our resources around that loop.
Keeping It All In Use
Our problem with waste is already overflowing.
We send stuff off for recycling, then learn that it’s ended up dumped in the ocean strangling sea life. And even the most biodegradable newspaper can be seen preserved for hundreds of years when we squash it within a landfill.
The materials that are used can be irrelevant if they don’t reach the right conditions for processing.
This is the people aspect of the loop. The obstacle of finding ways of shifting a system that doesn’t work into a finely tuned machine dependent upon people from all walks of life working together for a common cause.
Saying it like that makes it sound a bit far fetched. So let’s rephrase.
One man’s junk is another man’s treasure. We’ve all heard that one before.
One of the simplest ways that we can keep things moving is to find something valuable within the stuff that someone else wants rid of.
Car boot sales, online auctions, Facebook Marketplace. It’s becoming easier and easier to take the secondhand option. And let’s be honest, who doesn’t enjoy earning a quick fiver for something that was destined for the bin? Or that little victory of finding something unique that everyone else can’t just go and buy off the shelf?
So let’s keep this mindset growing and explore ways that it can be extended to become more of a norm for our business waste as well. Maybe developing new links within local communities?
The ways that we can keep things useful are vast and varied. Repairing, re-purposing, or direct reuse by somebody else. Not to mention simply reducing the amount of stuff that we choose to use in the first place.
None of this is complicated stuff when considered one item at a time. But developing a continuous resource loop for everything we use… that’s a heck of an ambition!
And I think it’s going to be quite the adventure to dive in and discover how we might be able to start joining those dots.
Have a watch of the video where I’m making paper out of old packaging waste. It demonstrates the concepts of keeping stuff useful and since it’s Christmas I’m having some fun making cards out of it too!
Winglewood ‘Links’ is the new zone that I’ve created to help us explore some of the actionable steps we could be taking based on the stuff we’re learning through these Series.
Head over to explore it all & please get involved with the discussions too!