Some time ago, my friends and I decided to spend a beautiful sunny day at the river. By early afternoon, we grew hungry and we decided to make a quick stop at a nearby restaurant. Like most restaurants in the US do, the restaurant offered take-out, but I insisted on dining in to avoid all the packaging waste. What would be a surprise to see, the entire meal was served on single- use disposables. From water cups to silverware, EVERYTHING was plastic, with only the napkins being paper (at least!). Needless to say, I was heartbroken. Over the past few years, more and more restaurants around the world have started shifting toward disposables (both plastic and paper) in an effort to reduce costs, but to also offer sterilized options (pandemic times). Prior to considering COVID-19, the industry of paper made disposables was further expected to grow at a CAGR of 0.7% between 2020 and 2025 to attain a value of USD 22.9 billion by 2025.
Even though disposables may seem practical, they have hidden costs, like the amount of waste they generate. When I was a child, we would visit my grandparents every few weeks. They lived by the beach and were a little unconventional, so it was always a lot of fun for my brother and I. Our grandmother grew up during the Civil War in Spain, and my grandfather, who later became a doctor, met her in the city of Morelia, Mexico, when she arrived at the age of fourteen. Maybe it was because of their hard upbringings, but the fact is they cherished everything they owned. I remember thinking how weird my grandmother was, making her own clothes, saving everything to be used for later; she even stored wrapped-up boxes so she could give us our Christmas presents in the same box every year (which actually, now that I think about it, is quite brilliant). Similarly, my grandfather used the same shaving kit for decades and had a small workshop in the back of the house where he fixed everything he knew how to fix. My grandfather even inherited my brother’s first PowerPC and used it for more than 10 years. They cared for everything in a way that our newer generations don’t come close to understanding.
It took me a long time to understand too, to keep things longer can be tricky when you move around a lot, as I have. Generations from the 80’s and younger have grown up in a time of constant change, with cheap furniture and fast fashion becoming the norm. We have created an away sort of relationship with waste, not stopping to think about how those discarded products are affecting the very place we live in. However, it doesn’t have to be that way. We can change the way we relate to stuff and keep products and materials in use for longer, which happens to be the Circular Economy’s second principle. By using better quality materials we can create better products, elevate their overall quality, and allow them to regain worth, both monetary and (perhaps) sentimental. Also, by keeping products in use for longer periods of time you allow them to pay for themselves and continue to generate income over time.
Remember your local library? or your local laundromat? New businesses like tool libraries, bicycle sharing, laundromats, Airbnb, and Uber have emerged using the very same idea: they offer a service which relies on the continuously shared use of good quality products. They rely not only on the constant reuse of the product but also on effective repair and remanufacture to keep them in great working shape for longer. Other business models that relate to keeping products in use for longer are repair cafés and online stores, like iFixit, where you can learn how to fix products, acquire spare parts and learn a skill by fixing your products yourself. Companies like Apple have realized that taking back their products, remanufacturing them, and getting them back out into the market is also good business as it warranties local and, therefore constant, resource flow. By keeping products and materials in use for longer, it takes more for new resources to be needed to make anything new, and therefore, the longer time nature has to regenerate. This is a win-win situation for everyone.
Writing by Irazú Aranda