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Restart gives power to the people

Janet Gunter co-founder of The Restart Project, explains why people are at the heart of the circular economy

The appetite for electronics is insatiable. By 2020, each of us in the UK will have disposed of 178kg of electronics and electricals – between two to three times the average body weight.

The Restart Project was founded in London last year in response to the astonishing growth in the electronics waste stream. Its mission is to help people improve their relationship with electronics, adopting a more mindful approach, maintaining and keeping devices for longer. We promote people-centred activities that bring about changes in mindsets and behaviours.

People care about the future and they recognise we live in a world of finite resources. But it does seem that the same people who are so concerned with cycling and with reducing plastic carrier bag usage, seem to be buying new laptops every year and switching their mobile phone model every nine months. It is as if recycling is calming our conscience, while our addiction to technological gadgets only grows.

The Restart Project would not be satisfied with the levels of technology consumption even if every last mobile phone and laptop was recycled. It is an unavoidable truth that for many devices, the majority of energy they will consume in their entire lifecycle will be at production stage. Something is out of joint.

The Restart Project was started to promote the often-forgotten Rs – reduce and reuse. And it soon discovered that recalibrating the balance between the two is not easy.

A trip to one council’s WEEE recycling centre in London revealed why. We went to peek into the container where electronics were collected. Much of what was there looked still functional. We even overheard an employee of the centre tell one person to smash their laptop before putting it in the container.

WRAP estimates that in the UK 23% of recycled electronic waste is either still functional or economical to repair. So why recycle equipment that is still functioning? Because we crave new, and because there is money to be made, there is literally gold to be mined.

The circles of the circular economy

The global conversation has now shifted to the ‘circular economy’. Witness Davos, the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting, where the Ellen MacArthur Foundation has promoted the concept. Up until now, the focus has been very much on recycling – the ‘outer circle’ – which implies creating a closed loop of materials and in the case of electronics, recovering metals in our gadgets. (See diagram) This is something only feasible at scale, something the big companies can profit from. The mainstream activities of the outer circle of the circular economy – shredding and melting — are very energy intensive, and the jury is out about how efficient they are. But more importantly, this kind of ‘outer circle’ is hard for people to relate to on a human scale.

The ‘inner circles’ of repair and reuse seem to have been fairly mute in these public discussions about the circular economy. For us, these are the circles where we can approach a future economy on a human scale. This is where we can transform our reality.

Last year, we started to throw Restart Parties, free community events where people with electronics skills help others to maintain and repair their gadgets, keeping them for longer. In the first year, we ran 27 of these events, working with hundreds of Londoners.

Together we diverted the equivalent of the weight of a polar bear in electronic waste. But more importantly, we reignited the repair spirit in people who were feeling helpless and disempowered.

What the ‘inner circle’ looks like

Here’s a personal example of how person to person interaction could be the basis for new, localised economies of repair. I bought my first smart phone over a year ago. After only a day or two of using it, I noticed it could barely handle simple tasks. My co-founder Ugo Vallauri and I tried in vain to find ways of coping. Then it dawned on us, there was no coping – the phone was shipped with an unusable hardware and software configuration. We spent months trying to find a solution. There were heaps of comments on online forums, but nothing definitive, and nothing that somebody like me could understand. We tried and failed numerous times. I despaired.

Then I learned at one of our Restart Parties that Ben, one of our repair volunteers, had the same mobile phone and he had cracked the problem. He walked me through alternative software installation. I did the last steps myself. I cannot describe the feeling. I will now keep this phone for years to come. But more than that, I feel that I have taken back control.

Like everybody else, for us, imagining a future economy where we are more linked, more resource-conscious and more resilient is not easy. We are not sure what the future holds. But we do know that our high streets are dying and growth in retail cannot seem to save local jobs.

So let’s imagine local economies of maintenance and repair, where you could easily find a trusted Ben near you every time you had a problem like mine. You could meet him at a monthly Restart Party. Or you could meet him at a café and you could pay him in cake or in cash, whichever works. Or you could find a number of Bens at a weekly pop-up clinic in the local community centre, or at a small storefront they rent together.

Virtuous linkages between the circles

From our point of view, the inner circle of the circular economy is a local circle: it is for citizens, small companies, community initiatives to reinvent. We are the inner circle.

That said, reuse and repair initiatives like ours will not simply flourish by themselves in isolation. People, community groups and small-scale entrepreneurs will drive them, but they will need more than just a pat on the back from local authorities. They will need real, proactive support. Finding affordable space is an issue where councils can help, boosting the repair economy. 

Additionally, reuse and repair initiatives must work harmoniously with corporate recycling interests. People who repair and reuse are much more likely to responsibly dispose of a device when it reaches end-of-life. And when a device is declared ‘terminal’ by repairers or volunteers, they can help guarantee it goes into the WEEE waste stream. So recyclers only have to gain by linking with these people-centred economies.

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