Rebuilt to Last

By Catherine

Written by Catherine Bolgar

Nearly 42 million tons of electric and electronic equipment, 5.9 kilograms per person, were thrown away world-wide last year. But several initiatives now aim to reduce that waste by helping people fix their appliances and devices.

People throw away lots of items that aren’t garbage yet, but simply need to be repaired. The problem is people don’t know how to do that anymore,” says Martine Postma, who launched the first Repair Café, in Amsterdam in 2009.

“But I noticed that in every community there are still some people who do know how to do it. In many cases they are older or retired or have lost their jobs—these people are not the center of attention in our society, but they do have skills.”

The Repair Café Foundation currently has more than 700 local organizers in 18 countries running their own Repair Cafés where people can bring broken appliances and be shown how to fix them by volunteer experts, for free.

“People learn something about repair,” Ms. Postma says. “They see how to open their item, what it does. Often it turns out items aren’t very broken. It’s just a wire or a screw that came loose, or maybe it needs to be cleaned or have the dust blown away. Then people see that repair is a real alternative to throwing away or buying new. Also, it’s fun.”

Small items, such as fans, cameras, vacuum cleaners, coffee makers, toasters, microwaves or electronic toys comprise the biggest category of e-waste, totaling 12.8 million tons, according to the U.N. And the amount of e-waste is growing by 4% to 5% a year.

The European Commission has set minimum targets to recover 85% of appliances, equipment and devices from landfill waste flows, and to prepare 80% for re-use or recycling.

iStock_000028806034_SmallHowever, it isn’t always easy to fix broken objects. Besides lacking know-how, people seldom have the appropriate tools. In some communities, tool libraries lend out an array of equipment, while at Repair Cafés, the repair gurus usually bring their own. “Often, fixing things is their biggest hobby, and they have the right tools,” Ms. Postma says.

They have their work cut out. “Many products have been designed to last only a few years and then be replaced with something new,” she says. “If that’s your idea, then you don’t need to design a product in such a way that it can be opened easily. Or use screws that people have the right screwdriver for. Or share information, with a manual.”

Kyle Wiens searched in vain for a manual after he broke his laptop. “I tried to take it apart, but it was hard to get open,” he says. “I managed to get the computer apart and put it back together, but it wasn’t quite right. I knew that if I had had some insight as to how it was put together, I would have been able to repair it.”

The experience led Mr. Wiens and Luke Soules, in 2003, to co-found iFixit, which writes manuals for products that lack such information. The iFixit staff disassembles products to reverse-engineer repair instructions. They also get help from the repair community, with members posting photographs and explanations to the wiki-based site, to “teach each other along the way,” he says.

iFixit’s advice is free, but the company sells spare parts and specialized tools. Indeed, Mr. Wiens sees parts and service, rather than planned obsolescence, as the future for manufacturers. “If you’re buying a power drill for €25 ($27.80), it’s probably not going to last very long,” he says. “The manufacturer is probably planning on selling you another one.” High-end construction tools, by contrast, are made to last and to be fixed, “because contractors are very demanding,” he notes.

We have a different relationship with cheap, replaceable objects compared with expensive items. With the former, “you’re more or less a slave to the product—you’re no longer master of the product—because you don’t know how it works or how to fix it,” Ms. Postma says. “You only know a new one is available. It is not sustainable to do this. Repair needs to get back into everyday life.”

 

Catherine Bolgar is a former managing editor of The Wall Street Journal Europe. For more from Catherine Bolgar, contributors from the Economist Intelligence Unit along with industry experts, join the Future Realities discussion.

Photos courtesy of iStock

Sustainability Series blog post: Packing Things Up

By Christina

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch” might sound like a horror story but, unfortunately, it is very real:  a giant collection of marine debris in the waters between North America and Japan that is primarily made up of plastic.  In addition to polluting ocean waters, this collection of bags, caps, bottles and cups is detrimental to marine life, which mistakes plastic items for food and consumes them, only to die from complications.  According to a study published in the journal Science in February 2015, 8 million tons of plastic packaging are deposited into oceans annually.

In order to help solve this problem, many companies are now turning to new biomaterials, smarter manufacturing methods and other end-of-life alternatives to reduce the environmental impact of their plastic packaging throughout its lifecycle.

A number of multi-national food and beverage brands and packaging manufacturers have launched or integrated bioplastic products into their portfolios. Bioplastics are derived from renewable biomass sources including vegetable fats, corn starch and agricultural byproducts.  A study by European Bioplastics predicts that bioplastics production capacity will increase by 400 percent, from 1.6 million tons in 2013 to around 6.7 million tons by 2018.

Packaging companies are also using new manufacturing techniques to optimize packaging design and reduce their use of virgin materials. For example, Amcor used 3D virtual design, finite element analysis, collaborative innovation and workflow management to remove more than 12,000 tons of plastic resin from its bottles.  MWV used lightweighting techniques to remove 18 percent of the plastic from medication packets made for a superstore.

IFWE Dassault Systèmes BrandingCompanies are also taking into account how the raw materials are sourced, transported, manufactured and disposed of.  A cradle-to-cradle (C2C) approach, designed to mimic natural processes, ensures that products contain materials that can be reused or recovered at their highest possible value multiple times after their first use.

Other recent innovations have included edible containers and biodegradable coffee cups that are embedded with seeds and can be buried after use.  In the U.S. alone, coffee “to go” is a daily staple, with an estimated 6 million cups of coffee sold in shops each day—think of the possibilities!KFC image (Image credit KFC via The New York Times)

For more details on how the CPGR industry is transforming packaging, read the full COMPASS article “Responsible packaging:  Producing reusable, recyclable or compostable packaging is a key goal for many companies”.

Sustainability Series Op-ed: The Food Tech Revolution

By Christina

The food industry is the largest economy in the world, its market size around €2 trillion in 2015.  Cereals are the planet’s primary food source, fish provide three billion people with one-fifth of their animal protein intake, and consumption of dairy and meat is rising.

The world’s population is expected to reach 9.6 billion by 2050, generating concerns about food supplies as more people will require additional resources. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that the food supply necessary to accommodate this population must increase by 60 percent.  This means, among other estimates, a 19 percent increase in agricultural water consumption, more than a billion tons of cereals in addition to existing supplies, and increased livestock production—already the largest user of agricultural land.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to this problem.  However, business and technology are playing a role in helping to alleviate the issue, one small bite at a time.

Focus on waste

As the world looks to solutions that will alleviate stresses on the planet’s food resources, focus is being placed on food waste, estimated at 1.3 billion tons or a cost of $750 billion each year (excluding fish and seafood).

Consumers, grocery stores and restaurants all contribute to food waste.  Expiration dates that serve more as guidelines than as “laws to live by” mean that food is often discarded while still edible.  More food is purchased than is needed or supersized packaging delivers more food than would have been desired in the first place.  Much of this food waste and its packaging rests in landfills or pollutes the ocean.

The food tech revolution

Plug the computerTechnological advances have transformed industry over the past few decades, from airplane design to the size of our telephones.  Such developments have impacted the way in which we live.  Can technology help solve the world’s eventual food resources challenges?  Can the fusion of technology and food start a “food tech” revolution?

For many, we are already there.  Creative initiatives are now helping to avoid, reduce, repurpose or recycle food waste and make the food industry more sustainable.

A recent movement in France has inspired consumers to purchase malformed – yet perfectly edible—fruits and vegetables at a discounted price.  “Les Gueules Cassées” (literally “Disfigured Faces” and a play-on-words of the inversed expression “casse gueule” which means risky or dangerous) is an association of French food producers whose business model has now expanded from fruits and vegetables to include certain cheeses and cereals under this label.

LiquiGlide is a new, non-stick coating that can be used on the inside of a bottle, so that food never gets stuck inside (apparently the idea was born from research to solve industrial challenges like preventing ice formation on the wings of aircraft).  A German startup, Qmilk, is using sour milk to manufacture textiles.  Several online service providers deliver the exact amount of ingredients needed to make a meal, saving potential food waste and costs.

These are just a few examples, and the venture capital world is taking note.  According to Dow Jones Venture Source, approximately $1.1 billion was invested in food- and beverage-related startups in the U.S. in the first half of 2014.  Although these startups’ activities vary wildly—from food delivery to e-commerce with local farms—the basic message is still there: the investors who traditionally have been behind major shifts in technology and healthcare are now looking at food.

Software’s role in the food tech revolution

Software also has the potential to play a profound role in this revolution by taking it a step further:  focusing on sustainability before food even hits the marketplace.

Solutions can help make industries involved in food production or packaging more environmentally compliant by reducing their use of natural resources or improving their processes.  This has a “pay it forward” effect, reducing waste of water, air, plants and soil.

Orange juice fabrication processConsumer goods packaging companies are using new manufacturing techniques such as “lightweighting” to optimize plastic packaging design, reduce their use of virgin materials and lessen the environmental impact of their plastic packaging throughout its lifecycle. This involves 3D virtual design, finite element analysis, collaborative innovation and workflow management.

Industrial equipment manufacturers are focusing on green agricultural machines that help effectively use water and energy resources for a greateroutput with less input, such as energy or fertilizer.  This can be achieved through collaborative design processes that link mechanical, electrical and hydraulics engineers in a digital environment, before any prototype is made.  Also, stored and managed design data for a machine can be accessed to upgrade equipment and increase its lifecycle.

Drones are being explored for potential applications in farming such as providing data on field irrigation or crop health that help farmers make informed decisions.  High-tech designers and engineers can create complex 3D shapes using cloud-based design tools and social collaboration to enhance a drone’s structure, weight, stability, size, maneuverability and power.

These are just a few examples of software’s potential for sustainability.  In tandem with initiatives to reduce food waste once in the marketplace, technology in general, by attacking the entire food waste lifecycle, has the potential to create a digital disruption in the world’s largest industry.



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