Design versus repair — the loaded language of consumption

30 Jul 2019

Chances are, last time something broke, you just went out and got a new one. In some instances, your ‘something’ might not have even been broken. You just wanted a new one.

In an article on The Conversation, academics involved in The Bower — Reuse & Repair Centre suggest this might be because ‘repair’ can be seen as being ‘inferior’, as a sign of making do or not being able to afford something new. At the opposite end of the spectrum, they suggest that ‘design’ was one of the big words of the twentieth century. To say that an object has been ‘designed’ implies a level of specialness.

‘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.’ (Lee, et. al 2019)

Does this ring true for you? The United Nations Environment Programme states that we cannot continue with the prevailing ‘make, use and dispose’ model of production and consumption, without significant consequences for society, a negative impact on health, and contributing further to climate change.

Moving towards the circular economy

In January 2019, the World Economic Forum released a new report that concludes we need a system in which the circular economy replaces the linear economy. A circular economy is one that exchanges the typical cycle of make, use, dispose in favour of as much re-use and recycling as possible. The longer materials and resources are in use, the more value is extracted from them.

Titled, Time for a Global Reboot, the World Economic Forum, together with the Platform for Accelerating the Circular Economy (PACE), are calling on designers, manufacturers, investors, traders, miners, raw material producers, consumers, policy-makers and others with a crucial role to play in reducing waste, to retain value within the system, extending the economic and physical life of an item, as well as its ability to be repaired, recycled and reused.

Reduce, reuse and repair and then recycle

As an example, the world produces 50 million tonnes of electronic and electrical waste (e-waste) per year, but according to the UN, but only 20% is formally recycled.  

Recycling e-waste can be a lucrative business for recyclers who mine the electronics for valuable metal components like copper, silver and gold. But the items also contain lead, cadmium and mercury, which are highly toxic if mishandled during processing.

Electronic waste from Western countries, including Australia, is flooding South-East Asian countries such as Thailand, sparking fears of air and water pollution by leaking dangerous chemicals into groundwater and causing significant health problems for people who scavenge recyclable materials by hand.

As a signatory to the Basel convention, it is illegal for Australia to export e-waste overseas unless the receiving countries have appropriately permitted plants for processing this waste safely and with good environmental protection in place. Media investigations suggests that not all our e-waste is going where it should and these problems illustrate the issues with not treating our own waste materials.

Due to these issues, manufacturers such as Apple — recognised as one of the greatest innovators of design the twentieth and twenty-first centuries — are being pressured to consider more options for repair and more considered recycling. For example, in April 2019, Apple announced an expansion of its global recycling program, introducing Daisy, its recycling robot. Daisy can disassemble 1.2 million devices per year. In 2018, the Apple claims to have refurbished more than 7.8 million Apple devices, helping divert more than 48,000 metric tons of electronic waste from landfills. 

References

Apple Inc., (2019) ‘Apple expands global recycling programs’, Press release, 18 April, at: www.apple.com/au/newsroom/2019/04/apple-expands-global-recycling-programs/

Domenech, T. (2014) ‘Explainer: What is a circular economy?’ The Conversation, 25 July, at: https://theconversation.com/explainer-what-is-a-circular-economy-29666

Lee, T., Crosby, A., Cooper, C., Adams Stein, J., and Scardifield, K., (2019) ‘Design and repair must work together to undo our legacy of waste’, The Conversation, 12 July, at: https://theconversation.com/design-and-repair-must-work-together-to-undo-our-legacy-of-waste-119932

Sellah, A, (2018) ‘E-waste exports highlight need for tighter controls on “unethical and irresponsible” trade’, ABC News, 16 August at: www.abc.net.au/news/science/2018-08-16/australian-e-waste-exports-to-developing-countries-unethical/10119000

United Nations Environment Programme, E-waste challenge, E-learning webpage, www.unenvironment.org/resources/e-learning/e-waste-challenge

United National Environment Programme (2019) ‘UN Report: Tim to seize opportunity, tackle challenge of e-waste’, Press release, 24 January, at www.unenvironment.org/news-and-stories/press-release/un-report-time-seize-opportunity-tackle-challenge-e-waste

World Economic Forum (2019) A New Circular Vision for Electronics Time for a Global Reboot, Geneva, January.

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