"Upcycling" — Turning Trash Into Products To Create Zero Waste

Stepping into the world of upcycling
Stepping into the world of upcycling
Paul Molga

PARIS â€" Can we one day live in a world where there’s zero trash?

A German chemist named Michael Braungart believes it is possible. He encourages companies to put a complete end to waste in The Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability â€" Designing for Abundance, a book he co-wrote with U.S. architect and designer William McDonough.

“The trash can means failure,” says Braungart. "We need to design not to waste.”

In order to reach this goal, Braungart believes a worldwide bank of raw materials needs to be created. "Nature works in cycles of biological metabolism. Let's imitate nature with technical metabolism," he says. "Manufacturers need to know the resources they have at their disposal, to know where to find them and when they can harvest them to be used as nutrients for other products. This collaborative system will allow industries to monitor and plan the reuse of all materials in circulation around the world.”

Braungart is trying to convince an audience beyond intellectuals and environmentalists the value of his argument. A former Greenpeace activist, Braungart came up with the concept of a “circular economy” with McDonough and introduced it in the bestseller Cradle to Cradle. The circular economy is one that does not produce waste and pollution: Biological nutrients are designed to reenter the biosphere safely while technical nutrients are designed to circulate at high quality in the production system without entering the biosphere.

"This is what I call ‘upcycle,’ the capability to anticipate the lifecycle of all the components of a product so as to organize their recovery and reuse before they're discarded,” says Braungart.

But less than 300 companies made the manufacturing changes that a circular economy needs, namely turning the content of our trash bags into a deposit of raw materials.

There’s a valid reason for why the system is not catching on. The investment necessary to incorporate manufacturing industries into this virtuous circle is huge. More than 600 billion euros is needed for Europe only, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates.

Braungart fears he won't live to see the benefits of a new consumer era that favors a positive ecological footprint. But a handful of designers have taken on the challenge.

"Waste is what's left when there's no more imagination,” says Brieuc Saffré, co-founder of Wiithaa, a firm that helps companies to organize their product flow to reduce waste.

Take their client Wako Plastic, a Japanese company. Wiithaa helped the plastics company find a new application for remaining septic tank filters â€" as support for walls and roofs. The agency also found that reeds â€" large quantities of which lie in the factory’s surroundings â€" can be used to produce a bioplastic needed for the creation of jigsaw mats for children, which are then leased to nursery schools. When these mats are overused or damaged, they are sent back to the Wako factory, and thus they are endlessly recycled.

Wako, of course, needed to reorganize significantly in order to make these changes. "It's a complicated process," Saffré says. "Many companies who consult us eventually decide not to take the step."

Although rare, companies that believe in the circular economy do exist. Sita, a recycling and resource management company, and Veka Recyclage recently collaborated to develop a collection system for end-of-life industrial PVC at waste sorting centers to create recyclable material. Their goal? To make 3,000 tons of useable material.

In 2013, Sita worked in the same way with German plastic company Rehau to set up a collection and recycling system for window-frame scraps. They built a circular supply channel that converted 3,000 tons of waste plastic to new products.

There’s no shortage of waste to regenerate. The construction industry creates more than 255 million tons of waste every year in France alone, most of which is PVC from windows, roller blinds, garden fences, and the like, which has be recycled as per European regulation.

Regulation is also forcing the automobile industry to rethink its approach. A joint venture between Renault and Re-Source Industries involves recycling 10 million end-of-life vehicles after they’re dismantled across 400 centers in Europe. Now 43% of tires they receive are recycled. So is all the metal they get.

Researchers say they are constantly finding new ways to reuse scores of different types of materials. The upcycle movement apparently has only just gotten started.

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How Low Trust In Government Fuels Violence Against Politicians

The deadly stabbing of UK MP David Amess confirms this researcher's ongoing study on trust and governance in democracies around the world: It's bad.

Tribute to slain UK MP David Amess in Leigh-on-Sea on Oct. 15

James Weinberg

The killing of British Conservative MP David Amess, who was stabbed to death in his constituency on October 15, is a tragic moment for democracy. What makes it even more devastating is that such a catastrophic failure is not without precedent or predictability. Labour MP Jo Cox was shot at her constituency surgery in 2016. Before her, another Labour MP, Stephen Timms, survived a stabbing in 2010. And Andrew Pennington, a Gloucestershire county councillor, died in a frenzied attack in 2001 while trying to protect local Liberal Democrat MP Nigel Jones.

This is to say nothing of the 2018 attack on the Palace of Westminster that left police officer Keith Palmer dead and MPs in a state of shock.

Beyond these critical junctures in the public debate about politicians' safety, elected representatives must live with an increasingly insidious level of popular cynicism that threatens violence on an almost daily basis.

Between the divisive politics of Brexit and the growing polarization of British party politics, MPs currently work in a low-trust, high-blame environment. Even before the existential angst and subsequent politicking of the COVID-19 pandemic, a recent Hansard Society audit of political engagement concluded that “opinions of the systems of governing are at their lowest point in the 15-year Audit series – worse now than in the aftermath of the MPs' expenses scandal."

The ramifications of governing in such an age of distrust are significant for the mental health and wellbeing of politicians. With colleagues, I've argued that such visceral and endemic distrust is a key stressor in political life. People are not simply wary or skeptical of politicians, they now routinely criticize their personalities and dismiss their good intentions. At its most severe, this “distrust stressor" manifests in the growing threat of physical violence faced by politicians.

Unfortunately, the distrust stressor is commonplace in the febrile climate of post-millennial UK politics. Serious cases of stalking and harassment have become a “common experience" for MPs. In the UK general election of 2017, for example, 56% of surveyed parliamentary candidates expressed concern about the levels of abuse and intimidation they had received and 31% said they had felt “fearful" during the campaign. Misuse of anonymous social media accounts has intensified these problems and created a toxic environment for elected politicians that regularly exposes them to online rape and murder threats.

Governing under threat

As part of an ongoing study of trust and governance in five democracies around the world, I recently carried out more than 50 in-depth interviews with junior and senior politicians in national legislatures, including questions on the stresses and strains of political life.

Reflecting on the ramifications of simply doing their job, one Conservative MP commented:

There have been votes that have been controversial, and you can then get a lot of abuse as a result of picking a side. My office has been vandalized, I've had stuff sent to me in the post, I've received death threats. And you do build up a very thick skin doing this job, there's no shadow of a doubt. Because one week in it, if you're not able to roll with the punches, you won't see through a whole term.

Almost 40% of interviewees were able to cite more than one instance of serious abuse or threats of physical violence. Not only are these experiences felt across both sides of the political aisle in the UK, but they also appear to be growing more common in other democratic contexts where the climate of politics has been presumed to be both calmer and more volatile. As one MP in New Zealand told me:

I've had some pretty horrible death threats and I've had a lot of abuse, particularly through social media. But also, funnily enough, in writing and phone calls. Unfortunately it's becoming more part of our political life.

Another, this time in South Africa, said:

What [this group of constituents] were saying is that if the water supply was not fixed by a certain time, they were going to kill me. And what they did is they took a tyre and said that this tyre was going to go around my neck and they're going to light it and that was going to be my demise. Listen, when you see your life flash before your eyes… you start to question whether it's worth it.

In the UK, analysis of data from the Representative Audit of Britain (a survey of all parliamentary candidates who stood in general elections between 2015 and 2019) suggests that the harassment, abuse and intimidation of elected and aspiring politicians is also highly gendered. Women politicians, and black and minority ethnic women in particular, experience a disproportionate share of sexualized abuse online. They also receive more aggressive and sexualized threats offline.

Contact between politicians and the public is at the very heart of effective democratic representation.

It is relatively easy to understand why all this would be detrimental to politicians' professional competence and their sense of personal worth and wellbeing, but it is harder to find solutions to this crisis.

Home Secretary Priti Patel has called for increased security measures in the wake of Amess's death. This is welcome but it's an instrumental response which might not be easy to implement. Political contact between politicians and the public is at the very heart of effective democratic representation – and it is unlikely that most MPs will agree to suspend constituency surgeries or fill their offices with armed guards at a time when governor-governed relations are already so strained.

Photo of \u200bNew Zealand's parliament in Wellington

New Zealand's parliament in Wellington

Guo Lei/Xinhua/ZUMA

Compassion and education

While specific issues around MPs' security and training are grappled with, we also need a call for conscious restraint and compassion in political discourse. When some politicians themselves resort to dog-whistle populism, verbal abuse and infighting, it broadcasts an image of politics as an arena for incivility. At the same time, it perpetuates a binary worldview that crowds out the possibility of empathy and compromise.

Alongside this, we need to overhaul the media coverage of politics. Increasingly intent on personalizing the political and politicizing the personal, a 24-hour news media too often drip feeds blunt stereotypes about politicians' personalities and motives. In contrast to much news coverage of politicians, my own research with hundreds of elected MPs and councillors has shown that the majority enter politics with an extraordinary dedication to improving the lives of others that is rarely perceived or appreciated by those they govern.

A deficit in democratic education leads to inflated public expectations about what is possible.

Equally important, nations around the world must commit to fully funded and well-resourced programmes of democratic education. Politics is messy and full of contingencies, and a deficit in democratic education leads to inflated public expectations about what is possible or desirable. In turn, this breeds disappointment and lowered self-efficacy, which together disrupt the positive potential of deliberative participation.

Ultimately, there is no place for political violence, harassment or intimidation in a functioning democracy. At the very least, politicians are ordinary humans attempting to undertake an extraordinary job on behalf of everybody else. Whatever their political views, nobody who has the courage to "step into the arena", to paraphrase Theodore Roosevelt, deserves to fear for their life in the pursuit of public service. To say that we need to rediscover civility and respect in our politics is once again an understatement of a devastating truth.The Conversation


James Weinberg is a lecturer in Political Behavior at the University of Sheffield

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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