Tom Lee, University of Technology Sydney; Alexandra Crosby, University of Technology Sydney; Clare Cooper, University of Technology Sydney; Jesse Adams Stein, University of Technology Sydney, and Katherine Scardifield, University of Technology Sydney
This article is part of our occasional long read series Zoom Out, where authors explore key ideas in science and technology in the broader context of society and humanity.
“Design” has been one of the big words of the twentieth century. To say that an object has been designed implies a level of specialness. “Designer items” are invested with a particular kind of expertise that is likely to make them pleasing to use, stylish, or – less common in late-capitalist society – well made.
Due to this positive association, design has become an “elevator word”, to borrow a phrase used by philosopher of science Ian Hacking. Like the words “facts”, “truth”, “knowledge”, “reality”, “genuine” and “robust”, the word design is used to raise the level of discourse.
“Repair” hasn’t had such a glossy recent history. We don’t have universities or TAFEs offering degrees in repair, churning out increasingly large numbers of repairers. Repair exists in the shadow of design, in unfashionable, unofficial pockets. And, until recently, repair mostly passed unremarked.
British literary scholar Steven Connor points to the ambiguous status of repair in his analysis of “fixing”. Connor discusses fixing and fixers in the context of related figures, such as the tinker, bodger and mender, all of which share outsider status.
Why can’t we fix our own electronic devices?
One might be forgiven for thinking “design” and “repair” were opposing forces. The former word has become so bound up with notions of newness, improvement, performance and innovation that it emphatically signals its difference from the seamful, restorative connotations of repair.
If repair is hessian and twine, design is sleek uniformity. Repair is about upkeep. Design is about updating. Repair is ongoing and cyclical. Design is about creative “genius” and finish. To design is, supposedly, to conceive and complete, to repair is to make do.
But perhaps design and repair are not, or ought not to be, as divergent as such a setting of the scene suggests. Thinking metaphorically of repair as design, and design as repair, can offer new and useful perspectives on both of these important spheres of cultural activity.
As a surface sheen that soothes us, design distracts us from any uncomfortable reminders of the disastrous excesses of global capitalist consumption and waste. The acquisition of new “designs” becomes addictive, a quick hit of a fresh design assures us that life is progressing.
As each new object is designed into existence and used over time, it is accompanied by an inevitable need for repair that evolves in parallel. Repair, where possible, cleans up the mess left by design.
Design and repair are different though related approaches to the common problem of entropy. Repair might seem only to be about returning an object to its previous state, whether for functional or decorative purposes. But maintaining that state is a hard fought affair, no less invested by collective or personal value.
The act of repair is also a determinate of worth. Whether at an individual or collective scale, choosing to repair this, and discard or neglect that, shares much in common with the process of selection, which informs the design of objects, images, garments or spaces.
Apple’s outgoing Chief Design Officer Jonathan Ive’s influence at Apple is among the most popularised examples of “successful design”, to which other designers and design students have long aspired. With Ive’s departure from Apple this year, we have an opportunity to take a long view of his legacy.
Since the distinctive bubble iMac in 1998, Ive shifted computing away from the beige, boxy uniformity of the IBM PC era, aligning computing with “high design” and investing it with deep popular appeal.
Even prior to Ive’s influence – take for example the 1977 Apple II – Apple’s industrial design has played a fundamental role in transforming computers from machines for tinkerers, into desirable objects of self-actualisation, blending leisure and labour with incomparable ease.
The iPhone is one among a suite of Apple products that have changed cultural expectations around consumer electronics, and other smart phone manufacturers have followed suit.
The ubiquity of iPhones makes it increasingly difficult to appreciate their strangeness. Not only do they appear sealed beyond consumer access, they almost induce a forgetting of seals altogether. The glistening surface expresses an idea of inviolability which is completely at odds with the high likelihood of wear and tear.
The iPhone is perhaps the ultimate example of a “black box”, an object that exhibits a pronounced distinction between its interior mechanics, which determine its functionality, and its exterior appearance. It gives nothing away, merely reflecting back at us through its “black mirror”, to borrow the title of Charlie Brooker’s dystopian television series.
The design of the iPhone – among other similar devices – forecloses against repair, both through its physical form, and also through the obsolescence built into its software and systems design, which defensively pits individuals against the power of a giant multinational company.
Apple deliberately discourages its customers using independent repair services. It has a track record of punishing people who have opted for independent repairs, rather than going through Apple (at much greater expense). This is an example of the company’s attempt to keep its customers in an ongoing cycle of constant consumption.
This has put Apple – along with the agricultural equipment company John Deere – in the crosshairs of the growing Right to Repair movement in the United States. Right to Repair is centred on a drive to reform legislation in 20 US states, targeting manufacturers’ “unfair and deceptive policies that make it difficult, expensive, or impossible for you to repair the things you own”.
The movement could perhaps be criticised for focusing too much on libertarian individualism. Other groups advocate more community-focused repair strategies, such as the global proliferation of Repair Cafes, and Sweden’s groundbreaking secondhand mall, ReTuna Recycling Galleria.
Either way, there is agreement that something must be done to reduce the staggering amounts of e-waste we produce. In Australia alone, 485,000 tonnes of e-waste was generated in 2016/2017, and the annual rates are increasing.
This legacy of digital technology’s “anti-repairability” has been accepted as inevitable for some time, but the tide is turning. For example, the Victorian government has banned e-waste from landfill from July 1.
Considering the increasing importance of responsible production and consumption, it is easily imaginable that, in a not too distant future, designers and design historians might point to the iPhone as naive, regressive and destructive. An example of design with thoroughly dated priorities, like the buildings in the Gothic revival style that provoked the ire of modernist architects.
Obscuring the wastage of valuable resources through sleek design could be decried as an outrageous excess, rather than celebrated for its “simiplicity”. With the benefit of hindsight, we might finally see that the iPhone was the opposite of minimalism.
Perhaps the revered objects of this imagined future will be launched by an entrepreneur who spruiks features and services associated with repair, rather than pacing the stage, championing an object because of its slimness, sleekness and speed. Hackability, ease of access, modularity, spare parts and durability might be touted as a product’s best features.
Alternatively, if the use of an object is decoupled from individual ownership, the responsibility for repair and waste might fall back on the producer. Perhaps “repair bins” will become a taken for granted feature of the urban landscape like curbside recycling bins are today.
To compel the pragmatists among us, such wishful thinking needs to remain mindful of the power multinationals have demonstrated in thwarting dreams of open access. Repair-oriented practices still face vast challenges when it is seemingly so convenient to waste. But to use one of the words of the day, aspirations need to be articulated if we, collectively, want to have the chance of living the dream.
Tom Lee, Senior Lecturer, School of Design, University of Technology Sydney; Alexandra Crosby, Senior Lecturer, Design, University of Technology Sydney; Clare Cooper, Lecturer, University of Technology Sydney; Jesse Adams Stein, Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Research Fellow, School of Design, University of Technology Sydney, and Katherine Scardifield, Lecturer, University of Technology Sydney
The Australian construction industry has grown significantly in the past two decades. Population growth has led to the need for extensive property development, better public transport and improved infrastructure. This means there has been a substantial increase in waste produced by construction and demolition.
In 2017, the industry generated 20.4 million tons (or megatonnes, MT) of waste from construction and demolition, such as for road and rail maintenance and land excavation. Typically, the waste from these activities include bricks, concrete, metal, timber, plasterboard, asphalt, rock and soil.
Between 2016 and 2017, more than 6.7MT of this waste went into landfills across Australia. The rest is either recycled, illegally dumped, reused, reprocessed or stockpiled.
But with high social, economic and environmental costs, sending waste to landfill is the worst strategy to manage this waste.
With the right tools, we can mine cities
What’s more, China introduced its “National Sword Policy” and restricted waste imports, banning certain foreign waste materials and setting stricter limits on contamination. So Australia’s need for solutions to landfill waste has become urgent.
China has long been the main end-market for recycling materials from Australia and other countries. In 2016 alone, China imported US$18 billion worth of recyclables.
Their new policy has mixed meanings for Australia’s waste and resource recovery industry. While it has closed China’s market to some of our waste, it encourages the development of an Australian domestic market for salvaged and recycled waste.
But there are several issues standing in the way of effective management of Australia’s construction and demolition waste.
In Australia, the main strategy to reduce the waste sent to landfill is the use of levies. But the effectiveness of levies has been questioned in recent years by experts who argue for smarter strategies to manage waste from construction and demolition. They say that imposing a landfill levy has not achieved the intended goals, such as a reduction in waste disposal or an increase in waste recovery activities.
One effective strategy Australia should expand is extended producer responsibility (EPR).
The idea originated in Germany in 1991 as a result of a landfill shortage. At the time, packaging made up 30% by weight and 50% by volume of Germany’s total municipal waste stream.
To slow down the filling of landfills, Germany introduced “the German Packaging Ordinance”. This law made manufacturers responsible for their own packaging waste. They either had to take back their packaging from consumers and distributors or pay the national packaging waste management organisation to collect it.
Australia has no specific EPR-driven legal instrument for the construction and demolition waste stream, nor any nationally adopted EPR regulations.
But some largely voluntary approaches have had an impact. These include the national Product Stewardship Act 2011, New South Wales’ Extended Producer Responsibility Priority Statement 2010 and Western Australia’s 2008 Policy Statement on Extended Producer Responsibility.
These schemes have provided an impetus for industry engagement in national integrated management of some types of waste, such as e-waste, oil, batteries and fluorescent lights. Voluntary industry programs also cover materials such as PVC, gypsum, waffle pod and carpet.
For instance, since 2002, the Vinyl Council of Australia has voluntarily agreed to apply EPR principles. Armstrong Australia, the world’s largest manufacturer of resilient PVC flooring products, collects the offcuts and end-of-life flooring materials for recycling and processing into a new product. These materials would otherwise have been sent to landfill.
In another example, CSR Gyprock uses a take-back scheme to collect offcuts and demolition materials. After installation, the fixing contractor arranges collection with CSR Gyprock’s recycling contractor who charges the builder a reasonable fee.
But extending producer responsibility in a sustainable way comes with a few challenges.
Everyone in the supply chain should be included: those who produce and supply materials, those involved in construction and demolition, and those who recover, recycle and dispose of waste.
The goal of our work is to connect organisations and industries across the country so waste can be traded instead of sent to landfill.
But the lack of an efficient supply chain system can discourage stakeholders from taking part in such schemes. An inefficient supply chain increases the costs associated with labour and admin staff at construction sites, transport, storage, separation of waste and insurance premiums.
All of these are not only seen as a financial burden but also add complexities to an already complicated system.
Australia needs a system with a balanced involvement of producers, consumers and delivery services to extend producer responsibility.
In our research, we’re seeking to develop a national economic approach to deal with the barriers preventing the effective management of construction and demolition waste in Australia, such as implementing an extended producer responsibility.
And a project aimed to find ways to integrate supply chain systems in the construction and demolition waste and resource recovery industry is supporting our efforts.
The goal is to ensure well-established connections between all parts in the construction supply chain. A more seamless system will boost markets for these materials, making waste recovery more economically viable. And that in turn will benefit society, economy and the environment.
Salman Shooshtarian, Research Fellow, RMIT University; Malik Khalfan, Associate Professor, Property, Construction and Project Management, RMIT University; Peter S.P. Wong, Associate Professor and Associate Dean, School of Property, Construction and Project Management, RMIT University; Rebecca Yang, Senior Lecturer, Property, Construction and Project Management, RMIT University, and Tayyab Maqsood, Associate Professor in Project Management, RMIT University
Indonesia has returned a container load of recyclables back to Australia, because the material did not meet stringent import requirements.
It is the latest Southeast Asian country to refuse Australia’s recycling waste. In January 2018, China stopped buying our recyclables until contamination was reduced significantly.
To achieve this, Australia needed to reduce contamination in commercial and household recycling, and improve our sorting facilities so they can identify and remove the types of materials causing concern.
This should have been a wake-up call that we need to improve our recycling industry and take urgent steps to reduce our reliance on overseas destinations for our recyclables. But did we? Clearly, the answer is no.
In July the Philippines turned away 69 containers (about 1,500 tonnes), of materials incorrectly labelled as plastic and containing unacceptable contaminants. Malaysia has also threatened to send recyclables back to the originating country if the loads contain contaminants.
Looking at photos of the material rejected by Indonesia, it is clearly a typical load of baled recyclables that could have come from any sorting facility in Australia. It contains recyclables, but also contamination like used nappies, clothing, food scraps, paper and cardboard in the plastic recycling, metals and plastic in the paper recycling and some containers that once had motor oil or detergents in them.
While I personally suspect it’s slightly over the top to call this “hazardous” material, as some news reports have – the same loads are shipped to some facilities in Australia – it is a moot point. Indonesia can set whatever rules they deem necessary to protect the health of their communities and environment.
This continues after strong warnings that unless we provide clean recyclables, we will not have access to these overseas markets.
Recycling is basically divided into “streams”. Mostly these streams contain one or two types of materials. For example, we have a cardboard stream, plastic stream or in some instances commingled stream which contains plastic, aluminium, steel and glass containers.
“Contamination” refers to materials that are not wanted in that stream because they interfere with the proper treatment of a given load. Plastic in a load of cardboard and paper is contamination; so are clothes in a plastic load. It does not necessarily need to be toxic chemicals or other things that come to mind when we think of “contamination”.
However, containers used for detergents, disinfectants, and the broad range of household chemicals do contain residues. While some of these fluids and powders do get removed (often while materials are being baled), some residues remain and this can also cause issues for those wishing to use the recyclables as their raw materials.
So it is no wonder Australian businesses are reluctant to use what we currently sort and send out as their raw materials. If the recyclables materials contain contaminants at a high level, then the business who could have used them would have to expend resources to clean up the loads. Apart from that cost, they then have to dispose of the unwanted materials to landfill.
Additionally, due to some uncertainty in the quality of the recyclables, manufacturers are concerned whether their products will be of the required standard and if not, will that affect the customer base. Remember, when recycled paper was first on the market there was some concern about inferior “whitness” and this affected sales. (Ironically, now most business use recycled paper this situation is somewhat reversed.)
Ultimately, the issue is not how we can get other countries to accept our waste. Australia needs to improve our capacity and willingness to use recycled materials ourselves.
We have seen progress recently with Australian companies using recycled materials in new and innovative ways. Plastics used in road construction or in building materials is just one example.
But unless our recycling is better sorted, it won’t be used by domestic companies. Even products made with recycled material need to be clean, safe and reliable.
So what can we do about it? Of course, the obvious first step is to invest more into recycling facilities so they can sort more efficiently. However, we all need to take responsibility for what we put into the recycling at home or work. Many contaminants can easily be avoided with a little more care, so familiarise yourself with what can be recycled by your home council.
Finally, recycling is not a panacea. We need to seriously reduce the amount of waste we create, as individuals and a society. Without this, the problem will only continue to grow.
We can’t recycle our way to ‘zero waste’
Almost half of Australia’s packaging waste is not being recovered for recycling, according to the first comprehensive study to track the fate of used packaging materials.
Overall, 56% of packaging was recovered for recycling in 2017-18, according to our study, carried out at the UTS Institute for Sustainable Futures and published by the Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation, a not-for-profit group that aims to reduce the environmental impact of packaging and is leading the effort to implement the National Packaging Targets.
Only 32% of plastic packaging was recovered for recycling, whereas the figure for paper and cardboard was 72%.
Used packaging materials such as glass, paper, metal and plastic make up 15% of all recyclable waste generated in Australia, according to our calculations based on available government data. By taking a snapshot of our current performance in recovering these materials, we can identify which areas are most in need of attention. This will help us work towards a “circular economy” approach in which packaging materials are reclaimed, reused and recycled, rather than thrown away.
Explainer: what is the circular economy?
The chart below shows that the most significant losses to landfill happen before waste is collected for sorting. Households and businesses are still throwing recyclable packaging, approximately 32% of total packaging consumed, into red bins instead of into recycling.
The 56% recovery figure includes packaging material recovered for export, as well as materials that are currently stockpiled. This includes glass which is not currently in high demand for local manufacturing.
Waste exported overseas represents a significant proportion – about 34% – of total packaging waste recovered. Evidently, there is a clear opportunity to improve local waste management practices and grow local demand for products that contain recycled materials. This would help make Australia’s packaging system more resilient to fluctuations in global markets.
The biggest recent market shock was the recycling crisis sparked by China’s decision to limit the imports of large amounts of recyclable materials.
In April last year, state and federal environment ministers and local governments reacted to that crisis with the launch of the National Packaging Targets. This included a pledge to pursue circular economy principles.
In practice, this means avoiding packaging waste, improving local recovery of recyclables, and increasing the demand for products that contain recycled materials. Already we have seen major brands such as Unilever commit to using at least 25% locally sourced recycled plastic in packaging such as shampoo bottles. This is a big step in the right direction, and aligns with the trending global agenda to eliminate plastic pollution.
However, developing a circular economy for packaging in Australia requires coordinated action across the whole supply chain. This includes manufacturers, brand owners, consumers, and the resource recovery sector.
Better source separation is important and this requires consumer education and awareness raising, as well as smarter design of packaging to make it easier to recycle. These strategies are already supported by the new Australasian Recycling Label, which could potentially be mandated for all types of packaging.
A further consequence of better source separation is a reduction in the contamination of the collected materials. This would improve the efficiency of the material recovery facilities (MRFs) that sort the mixed recyclables into separate streams for reprocessing.
What we also need is more and better data on packaging consumption and recycling infrastructure capabilities. Some future actions are clear, such as addressing problematic plastic packaging. Others decisions that might involve broad systemic interventions need more information about the best way to encourage packaging circularity. Key to success will be the willingness of all stakeholders to develop a collective, consistent and proactive approach to information sharing and problem solving.
This article was coauthored by Brooke Donnelly, chief executive of the Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation.
Ben Madden, Senior Research Consultant at the Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney and Nick Florin, Research Director, Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney
Over the weekend, Victoria’s Environment Protection Authority issued notices for a major recycling company to stop receiving waste at two of its sites.
While the full consequences of these notices are yet to be realised, in the short term this means at least one council will have to dump kerbside recycling in landfill.
This isn’t a new problem. It’s a result of China’s decision to stop accepting Australia’s recyclables, and a clear sign we’ve been playing catch-up but not focusing on sustainable solutions. We need to work out how to deal with recycling in Australia – and determine how much it will cost, and who will pay.
Kerbside collections are of course funded by householders as part of their annual rates. After China stopped buying Australian recycling we saw the garbage component of rates rise, so the collection aspect of the costs seems to be addressed. But of course there are a range of materials that cannot be placed in kerbside bins, but can be recycled.
As reported recently in The Age, analysis by an environmental consultancy has found the prices consumers may have to pay to ensure there are systems in place to recycle a range of specific items. For example, it would cost A$16 to recycle a mattress. Given that my local landfill charges A$23 to dispose of a mattress, it seems to make economic sense to pay into a compulsory recycling scheme (and I would not have to transport the mattress to the landfill, which is another bonus).
However, the piece of the loop that is missing is the encouragement (by levies or incentives), for businesses to use more recycled materials in their products.
It does not make sense to collect and stockpile recyclable materials until commodity prices are high enough to justify sorting them. This habit makes us dependent on overseas markets and creates domestic issues.
Nor is it good to have a stop-start approach, in which recyclables are sorted properly when there is space, but sent to landfill when there is not (or have householders call the council fortnightly to see whether they should place their recycling bin out).
A recycling industry association has provided a ten-point plan for resolving what they consider the essential issues with recycling. This very positive list includes investing waste levy funds into recycling, providing incentives for companies to use more recycled material, and educating consumers and businesses on recycling issues.
Encouraging businesses to use more recycled material is crucial. Instead of just reporting how much of their waste is recycled rather than sent to landfill, all organisations should report on the percentage of materials they buy from recycled sources.
This would help consumers make better buying decisions, and give guidance for governments to target specific sectors or programs to increase the use of recyclables.
We need a “fresh eyes” approach to how we manage waste, focusing equally on the environmental, economic and social aspects of this issue. One barrier is the lack of a centralised approach by all three spheres of government. It doesn’t make sense for state or local governments to have to to manage this large-scale infrastructure issue in isolation.
The largest portion of responsibility for waste management lies with the generator, but that is not to say others may not have a level of involvement. We all have some responsibility for the waste we create in our own homes, and how we dispose of it. Besides recycling, that also means (where possible) avoiding and reducing trash, and buying items made with recyclables – this is called “closing of the loop”.
Some businesses have made significant efforts to reduce their dependence on virgin raw materials, and are using recycled material to either make or package their products. But we do not hear much about this.
Perhaps it is time for a scheme similar to the “Buy Australian” program or energy efficiency stars, which would enable consumers to readily identify the level of recycled material in a product. Currently it is very difficult to tell.
Retailers often say they’re driven by consumers in what they can provide, so why not use our supposed power to force improvements (and more importantly, reductions), in use of virgin materials?
The banning of plastic bags by supermarkets was consumer-driven – so now is the time to encourage companies to reduce their waste burden. Perhaps you can approach a retailer about excess packaging, or make sure you check the label to see if an item was made or packaged with recycled materials.
As we move towards a federal election we should also be asking what our political parties are proposing to do about our waste crisis. It’s time to ask local candidates about their sustainable plan for resolving Australia’s issues with recycling, waste management and reducing resource use.