Tuesday, 26 August 2014

The ice bucket challenge and water scarcity

There’s an emotive internet meme that illustrates the contrast between a group of Americans dousing themselves in ice water for the #icebucketchallenge and an African child being fed a bottle-cap full of water.  A serious point made about the relatively scarcity of that precious commodity in two geographies, but sadly eschewing the challenge in aid of Motor Neurone Disease (the UK name for that debilitating and fatal condition) will not help those who are thirsty. Yes, I’ve done the challenge, but not without considering the wider impact of my actions. After reflection, on balance, I decided that to support those with the disease was a good thing and that – after a year in which flooding was more of an issue in my country than drought – we could afford a bucket of water.

It’s easy to criticise symbolic acts taken to raise awareness and funds for charity, but the important thing is that, on balance, the good strongly outweighs the cost. Everybody who participates should understand that the action does not in itself benefit anybody – it’s the giving it prompts or the awareness it raises that counts. I know when I do the Live Below the Line challenge that I’m not really experiencing what it’s like to live below the breadline, but I get to raise a little cash for organisations that support those who do and I spend more time reflecting on their situation than I otherwise might.

The #icebucketchallenge has really captured the public imagination. Some are doing it for their own preferred charities, others are finding creative ways to make it their own with costumes, props and crazy scenarios and as long as nobody puts themselves in danger that’s all fine too. I’ve found it uplifting to check my Facebook account and see it filled with my friends doing crazy things for charity. And yes, it’s good that we’ve having fun while we do it, too.
So my advice is do the #icebucketchallenge mindfully, and if any aspect of it tweaks your conscience then find a way to alleviate that with appropriate action. If you’re worried that it encourages people to waste water, use what’s left over from washing up, collected in rain butts and so on, and invite your friends to find creative sources of used water (hygienically, one hopes!). Concerned that the charity concerned may be associated with animal testing? Choose a charity you’d prefer to support and give the friends you nominate the reasons why.
In a world where selfishness, prejudice and inequality cause so much conflict, the viral nature of the #icebucketchallenge has kindled a generous spark in many of us. As such, it has enormous power to be a uniting force for good – so let’s not dismiss and criticise it, but look for ways to make the good just that little bit better.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

The trouble with WEEE

As one of the biggest metal recyclers announces that it plans to withdraw from WEEE recycling, the cracks are beginning to show in the legislation designed to promote recycling of ewaste. Fears have been raised that Sims departure from the market puts achievement of the UK's WEEE targets in jeopardy, but actually the problem goes deeper than that.

The real reason the government compliance schemes can't meet their targets is because there are much more commercially appealing options available. WEEE producer compliance schemes charge the producer a membership fee and a handling fee. Customers typically pay for collection of their WEEE. Yet in many market sectors - especially IT equipment - there are services available which actually return revenue to the organisation returning the unwanted kit. These services are fully compliant with waste legislation, and typically operate higher up the waste hierarchy than WEEE producer compliance schemes. But the WEEE they process doesn't contribute to the government compliance targets.

The WEEE producer compliance system is fundamentally flawed, for several reasons. Firstly, because it operates on the basis of volume targets so it is geared towards collecting the maximum amount of ewaste, not deriving the maximum value from the resources contained within it. Secondly, because it doesn't measure whole device re-use or parts re-use, both of which are preferable to recycling from the point of view of the waste hierarchy. And thirdly because it imposes a cost on the EEE producer which is based purely on market share and takes no account of how easy it is to recover value from the device. As a result, the most expedient process for recyclers is to bulk up ewaste and shred everything, resulting in low-grade recyclate that has little value as a manufacturing resource. Even if a device is working, or repairable, the collection process damages it beyond repair. and there is no incentive on WEEE producers to improve the design of their products to facilitate repairability or material recovery at end of first use.

Compare that with an ICT asset recovery company that inspects devices to determine what can be refurbished or cosmetically improved and resold for second use, what can have spare parts harvested for use in repairing other devices and what can be dismantled so that single metals or polymers can be recovered and returned in as-virgin quality for other manufacturing processes. A large proportion of ICT equipment has sufficient intrinsic value to fund the recovery processes, generate a profit margin for the asset recovery company and even return some value to the producer or the user. Many such programmes offer social value, by making donations to charity or funding education projects. This approach supports the resource stewardship agenda, returns value to the economy and creates jobs, but no account is taken of it in the government's WEEE targets.

Many suppliers of ICT equipment in the B2B sector now find themselves in the same position as my employer. We are compelled to pay into a compliance scheme which hardly any of our customers use because the alternatives are preferable from both an economic and an environmental point of view. Indeed, when we retired old IT we used a free asset recovery service with added social value in preference to the WEEE compliance scheme we offer our customers. The current WEEE legislation will miss its targets because it serves nobody but the compliance partners - and yet apparently they can't make it pay either. We need a better system, and quickly.

Monday, 19 May 2014

Doing the Moonwalk with the KYOCERA Walkabillies

On the night of Saturday 10th May, 9 KYOCERA Document Solutions UK staff and 3 of their friends and family members walked round London in their bras as part of the Moonwalk to raise awareness and funds to fight breast cancer. As it was our first time, we opted for the “half moon” – a power-walked half marathon distance of 13.1 miles. The Moonwalk is designed to be a personal fitness challenge as well as raising funds and awareness to fight breast cancer and we were keen to ensure that even those who take little exercise could get around the course in a reasonable time. Thursday became training day, with 10 mile walks along the banks of the River Thames after work for those based at our Reading HQ. Some members of the team have also been attending Zumba and body conditioning classes together, and we’ve all seen our fitness levels increase. As the big day – or night – approached, we were feeling confident we could set a pace of around 4 miles an hour and finish comfortably within our target time of 4 hours.

Our training schedule was interrupted by the KYOCERA partner conference which took place over the preceding three days. The early starts, late nights and tempting food and drink were perhaps not the ideal final preparation but at least the conference gave us the opportunity to let our channel partners know what we were doing and to boost our fundraising with their generous donations.
On the day, we were dismayed to see that the weather was not going to be kind to us – strong winds and heavy rain showers were forecast and as we were shivering as we queued to get in to “Moonwalk City”. Things were more comfortable in the huge pink tent that is erected on Clapham Common as Moonwalk HQ – we enjoyed a hot meal, shed the layers covering our decorated bras and applied eyeliner and red lipstick to complete the rockabilly look that was this year’s theme. The Moonwalk’s founder, Nina Barough, introduced videos about the support for cancer patients made possible by grants from organisers Walk the Walk and two bands entertained us with music from the 50s. Then after a warm up session, we were off.
The start is divided into groups to avoid overcrowding but unfortunately some of the participants either didn’t respect or didn’t understand the instructions. Our group – the third out of six – had to be held back as too many people had left in the first two waves and it was just past midnight when we finally passed the start line. The congestion meant that the first two miles took us over an hour, and being made to stand still while overcrowding eased meant that we got very cold. The route snaked backwards and forwards across the Thames and up on the bridges the wind was really biting, although it wasn’t so cold when we were sheltered by buildings and it hardly rained at all; as the miles passed we got up to our training pace and began to enjoy ourselves.

We certainly got to see a different side of London – we passed iconic landmarks like the Millennium Wheel, Houses of Parliament and the Shard and saw the lights from the bridges reflected in the Thames. We got plenty of support from the volunteers, who must have got much colder than us as they stood for several hours along the course to ensure our safety, and from passing vehicles. It must have been quite a sight to see 17,000 people – men as well as women – walking through London in decorated bras, and it certainly felt like we were part of something special. In the coldest hours just before dawn, that camaraderie was important in giving us the will to keep going, especially in the final mile which was uphill. We felt elated as the pink tent came back into view, and emotional as we passed the finish line just after 4.30 am and collected our medals.
We completed our challenge, but more than that – it feels like a lasting bond has been created between the team. The shared experience of training together, decorating our bras and then supporting each other through the night as we walked has definitely brought us closer. Everybody completed the course, and thanks to our thorough preparation we didn’t even suffer a single blister, although one team member has since been diagnosed with a stress fracture in her foot. We’ve already smashed our fundraising target of £1,300 – the total is already over £2,300 and we still have pledges to collect. And some of us are already talking about attempting the full moon next year …

A big, warm “thank you!” to everybody who supported us, from the KYOCERA Walkabillies: Audrey Pickering, Coralie Coppock, Lou Marris, Mandy Hinton, Michelle Dunn, Olivia Stokes, Sandra Rogers, Sarah White and Tracey Rawling Church from KYOCERA Document Solutions UK, plus Debbie Skinner, Gillian Beeson and Leona Quinn.

To support the KYOCERA Walkabillies you can pledge here : https://moonwalklondon2014.everydayhero.com/uk/kyocera-walkabillies

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Why the 3Rs model is no longer fit for purpose

Those of us who have been around green issues for a while are very familiar with the 3Rs mantra – reduce, re-use, recycle – and that waste hierarchy also forms the foundation for the work of bodies such as WRAP which support companies that want to use resources more efficiently. But as we approach a resource-constrained not-so-distant future there’s a growing body of thought that we need to go further than the incremental improvements that the 3Rs model supports.

Certainly, that’s the view of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which works to promote the concept of the Circular Economy. MacArthur argues that our traditional economy is founded on an essentially linear take-make-dispose model which relies on an abundant supply of raw materials that can be manufactured into consumer goods with a finite life that will be discarded as soon as something newer and shinier comes along. The Circular Economy model strives to create a system where mineral and organic resources are endlessly cycled through the economy, reducing our need to find new raw materials and freeing ourselves from the issues of resource scarcity, price volatility and so on that are the inevitable outcome of a rapidly growing and urbanising population combined with an undeniably finite planet.

Of course we like our models to be alliterative whenever possible, so the MacArthur adaption adds “rethink and redesign” above the apex of the traditional 3Rs model. In MacArthur’s diagram they share a box, but I’d go one step further and place rethink above redesign in a separate box. Our mindset tends to be firmly centred on products and redesign can easily be assumed to apply to a product; using “rethink” as the first prompt makes a more explicit point that we need to go right back to basics and reconsider what human need we are trying to meet and in what form. For example, to use an example borrowed from Kingfisher, customers who visit a B&Q store to buy a drill don’t necessarily need one. What they need is a hole, and B&Q is focusing on finding better ways to meet the need for a hole rather than simply redesigning a more efficient drill.

There’s scope to improve the waste hierarchy at the bottom of the pyramid, too – and WRAP is already using a model that includes recovery of energy from waste as the step below recycling. But it’s widely accepted that 80% of the environmental impacts of a product are determined at the design stage. So once we’ve re-imagined the customer need there’s a compelling case for making sure that, if a product is the appropriate way to fulfil it, then it’s designed to not just use resources efficiently but make it as easy as possible to recover them when the product is no longer fit for re-use.  Kyocera has been thinking this way since 1992, when it launched its first ECOSYS printer, designed to both reduce consumables waste and to facilitate disassembly and recycling at end of life. Ahead of its time? Perhaps – but it’s reassuring to see that such ideas are finally becoming mainstream.

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Extreme Freegling and the waste-free office move

When my employers decided to move offices, I set myself the challenge of ensuring that we could achieve it without sending anything to landfill. A significant challenge, since we had decided that we would have all new IT equipment and furniture, but we've managed to achieve it.

If the new kit sounds extravagant, it's worth bearing in mind that most of our furniture has been in the business longer than me - and I celebrated 20 years with the company in June. Our IT assets have been seriously sweated; most of our PCs were more than 8 years old and were proving difficult to keep running. We were moving to a building that we had refurbished to SKA Gold environmental standard after it had stood vacant for several years and it would have been a pity to fill it with a mish-mash of aged furniture and IT equipment. But how to make sure we minimised our waste?

First port of call was our own staff. Reading-based colleagues were offered the opportunity to take things for their home offices - and many did. Next, we talked to our local community foundation. Connect Reading acts as an interface between business and the third sector and was happy to let its charity members know that we had items to donate. Five of its members, plus two charities with which staff had family connections, expressed an interest and were given the opportunity to visit and tag anything they wanted. Our relocation contractors, ActiveFM, agreed to deliver these items free of charge which was a major consideration - transport costs often exceed the value of second-hand furniture, making it uneconomic. Thanks to Connect Reading and Active FM, I estimate that more than half of our furniture was re-homed with local charities.

Next, ActiveFM offered second-hand furniture dealers the serviceable furniture that charities didn't want, providing some income to offset our removal costs. Some of the remaining items were adopted by our neighbours and some heavy duty racking was sold on eBay. This left us with a handful of furniture items plus sundry office supplies, kitchen and cleaning equipment. Somewhat hesitantly, I began to list these items on Freegle and was blown away by the response. We quickly found homes for two glass display cabinets (taken by a local school) and our portable wheelchair ramp (taken by a Freegler for her wheelchair-bound mum) and encouraged by this success I became more ambitious. I listed some of our less ancient monitors and these were taken by the local Freegle branch, some for the use of its volunteers and some to raise funds to keep the scheme running. Other Freeglers turned up for one item and having had a look around asked about others that hadn't been listed - as a result of which the balance of our racking was dismantled and taken away. In the end even our reception desk was Freegled - and in the process I met some lovely people and heard some great stories.

Finally, we invited Return on IT to recycle all our redundant ICT equipment. Return on IT processes e-waste according to a strict waste hierarchy that prioritises re-use and recovers materials that can be re-used in manufacturing other goods. The free service is fully WEEE compliant and sends nothing to landfill - what's more a donation to charity is made in proportion to the volume of equipment recycled.

In all I did "extreme freegling" over a period of about a week, including a Sunday spent sorting and segregating to separate the items that were suitable for re-use from those that would have to be recycled. And because the network had been decommissioned at the old offices, some late nights were spent on my home PC processing Freegle requests and making contact with those who wanted the things we no longer needed. It was more time-consuming and demanded more thought than simply getting a clearance company in, but as a result we've managed to minimise the cost of moving, deliver real community benefit and not a single item has been sent to landfill.

Thursday, 21 February 2013

Serendipity and shared values

I spent today with a bunch of like-minded people exploring the barriers to a circular economy and sharing ideas for catalysing change, under the auspices of the Circular Economy Task Force convened by Green Alliance. At the moment I think it's fair to say that we have more questions than answers, but we're definitely making progress. One of the key challenges we've identified is how to incentivise the behaviours that support a circular economy, for example returning end of life products to a recycling centre. Work done for the day, I headed home and met my 12-year old son at Reading Station for an artisan ice-cream at the fabulous Tutti Frutti.

On the bus home, he told me he'd discovered his favourite place in the entire world - a city in Brazil with many green spaces, a cheap and efficient public transport system and impressively high recycling rates achieved through the issue of "green tokens" that can be exchanged for public transport tickets and fresh produce. He couldn't remember its name, but I have since found out that it's Curitiba. My son had no idea how I had spent my day, and I hadn't planned to discuss it with him, but his observation prompted a lively discussion about the merits of a circular economy. And I genuinely learned something new that is of direct relevance to my work.

I suggested, jokingly, that perhaps next time the Task Force meets, he should come with me. He was so excited by the idea that I'm beginning to think seriously about suggesting it. And not just him - perhaps a whole cohort of young people.  After all, it's their future we're trying to safeguard. And, as my son reminded me today, they might just know more than we give them credit for.

Monday, 4 February 2013

Disco for good

As disco, humour and tolerance are all high on my list of favourite things, the English Disco Lovers' mission resonates strongly with me. There's something pleasingly barmy about trying to reclaim the abbreviation EDL and dislodge a racist organisation from internet search engines through the medium of disco. Like-minded followers on Facebook have embraced the English Disco Lovers' lighthearted, pun-ridden "pro-disco, anti-racism" manifesto and responded with tweaked lyrics and puns of their own.

The aim is to attract more Facebook "likes" and Twitter followers than the English Defence League, in order to bump it off the top spot on the major search engines. The more people who visit the English Disco Lovers website - and especially link to it - the more successful the project will be. So if you, too, would like to see a world with less racism and more disco please like, tweet, +1 and blog in support of the English Disco Lovers and help bump racism out of cyberspace. Do good, have fun - and keep on dancing!