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OCH: Resources

Robin McAlpine – 7th July 2022

This is espresso maker is made of plywood. This car is made of and runs on hemp. All the structural materials in this 18-story tower block are wood. All of these packaging materials are made from plants. All of these clothes are made of bamboo.

This week of the Common Home Plan campaign is where I personally start to get excited. It’s not that there isn’t much to be excited about elsewhere (oh for those warm, draught-free houses, oh for a food system that tastes that good, oh for the chance to develop all that marine energy for the public good).

But it is when we reach the point of looking at our material resources that the real opportunities open up. And the potential of that is enormous.

Let’s start with the problem, and it’s the madness of capitalism’s ‘linear economics’. We have an industrial system that seeks to reduce waste because that costs the industrialist money, but we have a consumer-facing system that positively encourages waste on the basis that the more consumers waste, the more they pay, so the more profits are made.

Think about the rise of disposability. Had you told me as a young adult that we’d soon live in a society where people routinely buy clothes they only intend to wear once and then throw in the bin, I’d have scratched my head in confusion. And yet that’s ‘fast fashion’ and it’s no more than an intensified version of the rest of the economy.

Linear economics is a process of ‘take, make, sell, dispose’. You take resources out of or from the land or our oceans, you process it into something that can be sold, you sell it, but you do so with the clear expectation that the consumer will then bin it. That way the whole process can start over again.

If you were to pick a single reason we’re in a series of environmental emergencies, it’s that, it’s linear economics. Everything on our planet should be thought of as a resource – from oil, gas and coal to metals and concrete to crops and timber. The question is simply ‘what should we do with our resources?’. Sadly the question that is asked is more like ‘how can I get my hands on resources and then use them to take money from someone?’.

From the moment we properly understood what burning petrochemicals was doing we should have asked what we should have been doing with that resource and ‘maximise its extraction’ was not the correct answer. But it was the profitable answer. 

From the second we understood what plastics do to our environment we should have treated them as a ‘special purpose material’, to be used only where they have long-term value (like pipes). But plastics made consumer goods cheap and helped make long supply chains possible. And now we’re paying a heavy price.

So what should we be doing with our resources? It’s really easy. The world is circular and all the systems which keep it alive are circular, yet we want to run in a straight line as if we’ll never get to an endpoint. Instead we must ‘behave like biology’ and be circular.

You can find what that looks like in more detail in the Common Home Plan [LINK] but it’s fairly basic. First you work out what materials you want out there in the world and how to give them as long a lifecycle as possible. 

We can replace plastics with moulded plywood and bioplastics, we can replace steel and a lot of concrete with cross-laminated timber, we can replace the truly awful ‘polycotton’ with hemp and bamboo fabrics. We can also design to need less material in the first place, sometimes no material at all (think online news versus newspaper).

That means we would be using almost exclusively materials which can be completely recycled (metal and glass) or which will biodegrade (all the examples above). But before we get there we need to think of their use in ‘resource loops’. You can see what these look like in the Our Common Home book (the one with illustrations) or in this video. First, share what you can so you don’t need to own (leasing, renting and borrowing). When you can’t share, reuse (no more disposable coffee cups). Where something can be reused, repair it. When it is beyond repair, use it for remanufacture (rather than recycle it back down to the base materials it was made of, dismantle it and use its component parts again).

Only then do we leave the ‘loops’, when the things we made and owned just can’t be used for anything any more. And at that point there are only two things that should be considered – composting or recycling. All of the materials outlined above will quickly turn back into compost (itself a valuable resource).

That leaves only materials which can return to their original form – metals, glass and a very small amount of plastic which is capable of being reused for long-term purposes. (There are a small number of materials which are mineral-based which don’t easily recycle like some ceramics, but they biodegrade back into the natural materials they were made from.)

And all of that recovered material goes right back in at the beginning, feeding the production process so that nothing is wasted.

So what is it that gets me so excited about bamboo socks and sewing buttons back on? Partly it lifts from me the dark sense that everything we do is destroying something – what I think of as ‘the bit at the end of Blue Planet where we’re made to watch the dead babies of dolphins we killed with plastic’.

But mainly it is because this opens up a new world with incredible possibilities. Because if you lease something rather than buy it, three things happen. First, costs are spread so you don’t need to cost-cut at the outset. There is no ‘buy cheap, buy twice’ so you lease good and it stays good. And that’s the second advantage – someone repairs it for you and you don’t have to worry, so it lasts much longer. 

But it may be the last thing which is the biggest win of all – if you don’t like it, don’t want it or don’t need it, you send it back and it costs you nothing. You only need to pay for things you actually try and like; you don’t pay for things so you can try them. And let’s be honest, we all get bored of things or want to try new things.

The best example is children’s toys. Frankly they often barely play with toys, but they love browsing and choosing toys, getting them, playing with them in a short flurry and then forgetting them. Imagine if your children could just send them back when bored with them and then pick something else?

A circular economy means you have much better-quality stuff, you have access to much more stuff and can get your hands on anything you want, you will never have ‘buyer’s remorse’ again because if it doesn’t work for you you send it back (think of getting all your storage space back…). And of course we don’t need to feel guilt about dead dolphins.

In Scotland, yet again because of our natural resources, abundant land and easy access to cheap renewable energy, we are in an amazing position. We can just stop importing cheap plastic things from China and instead start making much higher-quality things from materials we can grown easily on our greatly under-used land. This is a giant economic opportunity for Scotland.

It is hard to stress how much difference a circular economy would make. It’s almost all upside, from the quality of jobs it creates to the quality of life it gives you. We can get on and do it now. For those who are minded that way we can even see it as ‘post-capitalism’, a system much more based on the mutual use of capital resources to make things better for us all.

And that’s why I get excited. Because this is a strange and exciting new world with so many upsides and so few downsides. We will either reach a circular economy or human civilisation as we know if will fall apart. And when we get to that circular world, we’ll think our old selves were absolutely mad…

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