Creating waste and wasting creativity

From the mass consumption of consumer durables...

Clear indications that the quantity of consumer durables we produce constitutes an environmental problem are given by the scale of dumping in streets, the countryside and on open spaces, along with the mounting piles of electrical and electronic waste. It is less clear though that a number of these everyday inventions started as something that people would rent, 'share' or reserve for high-volume use; the original intention was probably not to produce so many machines in the first case.

The vacuum cleaner is an example. Booth's version in particular was first developed as a cleaning service - a large piece of equipment, mounted on a horse-drawn carriage and available for hire. The carriage would be parked outside a building from where the debris inside would be vacuumed out into a large drum in the street, away from where it all could aggravate allergies or respiratory ailments for the people inside. Although an improvement to health was probably not the top priority, when the device was first demonstrated, in a hospital, the incidence of infection among recuperating patients declined. Since then this piece of equipment for hire has been transformed into a consumer durable that works like a 'black hole' to hair and fluff, yet spreads fine dust and spores around the interior of a building.

From the mid-1850s onwards washing by machine was based on steam-driven (sometimes petrol-driven) machinery for commercial and institutional users. After the 1930s, mains supply of electricity to homes paved the way for domestic washing machines and a growth in the consumption of consumer durables generally. The way was also paved for the householder to learn that a consumer durable is a consumer breakable - often beyond repair. Over time micro-electronics were incorporated in these machines, which increased the washing options but restricted their lifetime and potential for repair.

Dryers started as manual, centrifugal machines and when the commercial ones became smaller, householders living with condensation, damp and poor insulation were justified to use them. For those who do not live in flats, the sun and the wind can do the same job and disinfect and whiten the laundry into the bargain. It is one reason why drying is still a major application of solar energy. Poor housing conditions also drive the use of dehumidifiers, which were first developed for the commercial sector. The early dishwasher did not include a drying cycle and was designed for use in refectories and restaurants.

Nowadays industry and consumer groups alike assert that this machine is the one consumer durable that saves water and energy because, it is claimed, washing by hand is so inefficient. The dishwasher is certainly useful for cleaning large quantities of plates, cups and saucers but not necessarily for cleaning all the weird and wonderful things that get used in a domestic kitchen and do not conform to the "Instructions for Use".

When Jacuzzis were first produced they were used in schools and hospitals, despite the risk of infection to women or the risk of eye infection from Acanthamoeba keratitis. For jet-cleaning and ice-making machines the domestic environment was not the first target either. The industrial machine that became the domestic sewing machine may be "...a girl's best friend...", as the song goes, but how much use does it get each day?

Refrigerators or fridge/freezers were produced for commercial users about 40 years before they became available for domestic use. Now they are considered by many to be as indispensable as electric lighting or a cooker because they help to prevent food waste and all those trips to the shops. Set against this is the need for regular cleaning, maintenance and repair, the tendency to rely less on fresh food and the problem posed by banked CFCs in fridges and freezers manufactured before the ban on ozone-destroying refrigerants.

Limiting factors will inevitably dampen an exponential increase in the range and numbers of modern consumer durables. One such factor is that domestic space is shrinking (1) all the time, especially in flats. Households now have to contend with kitchens that are too small for a table, living rooms that have to serve as the second or third bedroom, minimal storage space and flimsy doors, floors, walls and windows. These features of the modern home militate against acquisitiveness. Add to this the nuisance of transmitted noise and vibration, and the risk of floods from sundry appliances, then sharing looks like a worthwhile proposition.

Duplication is a problem. In most homes there is often more than one cell phone, computer, i-pad, radio or television and while this makes communication a great deal easier people run the risk of being "sedated by software" (2), discouraged from negotiating and sharing, and exposed to more electromagnetic pollution.

More and more of the components in consumer durables are made of plastics and composites that are currently difficult to re-cycle or identify. Those enormous volumes of expanded polystyrene used outside the products - as packaging - and inside them, are fairly easy to recycle using a gas solvent process but hardly anyone is doing it. Other plastics used in components could also be recycled instead of ending up with the millions of tonnes that are already in the oceans, however composites are much more problematic.

Most consumer durables are also electrical appliances, which poses another set of environmental problems. Manufacturers now only give a guarantee for one year - sometimes two. A special policy has to be arranged for longer periods because manufacturers are not designing for durability or sustainability but for quantity and turnover. This is nothing new however. From a different sector of manufacturing Lewis Mumford (3) draws the example of a Swiss watch manufacturer who admitted he could make a watch to last a lifetime but that he would go out of business as a result. By accelerating the life-cycle of electrical appliances the externalities of pollution, resource depletion and waste disposal are compounded.

Power demand is another limiting factor. We are persuaded to buy more and more electrical goods, contrary to the policy to reduce CO2 emissions from coal, gas and oil-fired power stations. At the same time we are cajoled to "Switch Something Off", "Turn Off", "Flick the Switch", "Pull the Plug" and "Turn Off that Extension"(4) in order to conform to the same policy. Somehow we are expected to swallow this contradiction and keep a straight face.

Aside from the problems posed by toxic chemicals used in their manufacture, electronic components are used increasingly. The development of micro-electronics may help to reduce the size of some appliances but the waste electrical and electronic equipment problem mounts up and has still to be sorted out by other means than exporting it to areas of the world that do not operate strong environmental and public health regulations.

At a more complex level the micro-electronics in programmable consumer durables can be connected to the internet via Wi-Fi, for the benefit of the busy user. The sting in the tail of this cornucopian idea - the Internet of Things (IoT) - is that cyber-security will be compromised if someone with a cell phone hacks into the programmes on household appliances connected by Wi-Fi and progresses on to other internet functions used by the owner, such as E-mails, internet bank accounts and websites.

Robotic vacuum cleaners and door answering machines could serve people with disabilities and will inevitably become more sophisticated consumer durables for every home. Once they do, their impact is very likely to replicate the impact of all the other equipment in the home but at a more complex level.

An audit could demonstrate how even a modest family accumulates as many as 20 plugged and unplugged consumer durables or bits of consumer electronics in their living room and 12 in their kitchen, all requiring disposal when they wear out or breakdown beyond repair. If faults go undetected and are not repaired they can easily become electrical fire or accident hazards. A further audit could reveal up to 50 batteries (5) in use in various household items and play-things, even though some of these are powered by mains electricity.

Consumer durables and white goods require regular maintenance and cleaning, otherwise they become inefficient and hazardous. On these grounds alone, shared use should have the edge over private use because it is easy for anyone to gloss over these details in a busy household. With more shared use machines would really release us from drudgery because the chores of cleaning and maintenance could be undertaken by a professional. This would help to overcome the consumer durable contradiction: that there is a large group of people who are armed to the teeth with gadgets and machines yet who do not have sufficient technical knowledge to use them effectively or responsibly; even less to repair them.

The need to reduce power and energy burdens, to avoid planned obsolescence and non-repairable consumer durables or to deal with those ingenious yet complicated composite materials and exotic, rare materials used to manufacture non-repairable and delicate micro-electronic components lends weight to the argument that consumer durables cannot continue to be produced, consumed and duplicated at current rates without dire consequences.

In that it was aimed at every individual and householder from the very start, the mass-produced car is a possible exception among consumer durables. Henry Ford admitted that his intention was to replace the horse with the internal combustion engine and to mass-produce a horseless carriage for use on rural roads. "I want to turn a plaything into a necessity." declared Ford, and with the Model-T he almost succeeded. Yet under the different conditions prevailing in the UK the car is now more often used on urban roads or motorways and remains a bit of a plaything. As such it fulfils all sorts of functions and phantasies that have nothing to do with transport and cause havoc with the environment.

To boot, cars consist of well over 5000 moving parts that can go wrong, are constrained by over 2000 laws, rules, regulations, statutes and ordinances, were involved in a total of over one million (6) fatal accidents worldwide and emit large quantities of pollutants, including CO2. Car-owning culture has been the midwife to an antisocial love of speed and comfort and caused high levels of waste and environmental degradation, without equal in the holy realm of consumer durables. the selective use of durable goods

If the restorative powers of the organic world are given some anthropic assistance it is seldom too late to take some kind of action to deal with the environmental problems caused by mass consumption.

How much more simple and accessible it would be for our densely populated communities if the original role of some of our everyday inventions had not been abandoned. At the very least the outcome would have been less acquisitive, more collaborative and more cooperative, which are life affirmative qualities of a 'greener' society. There are even alternatives to that "purely magical object" (7) the car, such as car-sharing, much cheaper public transport, hitch-hiking apps or websites, shared-taxis (8) and bicycle schemes (9).

Although smaller, high efficiency, domestic boilers have been embraced by government and householders alike, communal heating systems are now able to deliver heating, hot water and electricity to masses of properties in which space is simultaneously liberated of cumbersome plumbing and heating equipment. Both the historical background and current practise of the Pimlico District Heating Undertaking are endorsements of district heating and 'combined heat and power'. It also shows what can be achieved when due attention is paid to maintenance, operating procedures and the local history of waste heat recuperation.

Before the Quarry Hill flats were demolished this social housing estate in central Leeds had a communal system of Garchey refuse disposal units. On an individual basis this would have been unviable. Communal arrays of photovoltaic panels make much more sense than the standard package for a house that generates just 4kWh. And, does every gardener need a shredder for green waste if plenty of mobile ones, owned by tree surgeons and gardeners, are trailing around?

There are of course objections to sharing and hiring. Personal hygiene is compromised according to some although this objection overlooks how large-scale individual ownership creates public health and hygiene problems during production, procurement, use and disposal.

Another objection is inconvenience, which denies the experience that personal convenience is frequently won at the inconvenience of everyone else. This harks back to questions discussed by a Jeremy Bentham (10) or an Adam Smith. It is also a reminder of how personal convenience and privacy are now so cherished that they have become ideological, even though they are historically recent appreciations that can be linked to the growth in population, the growth in city size and political economy.

Cost is a common objection too. Buying one's own consumer durable is usually ranked as a cheaper alternative to jointly buying or renting one. Hardly ever are the life-cycle costs taken into account such as procurement, maintenance, cleaning and disposal as well as the environmental and social costs. Cost to the individual in real terms is not the whole story. It needs to be pointed out too that the artificially low-priced machines manufactured in areas where environmental and social regulation is almost non-existent leave the door open for consumers to dispose of machines at a faster rate, for quite trivial reasons, and to ignore repairs.

The proposal in this article is not to be as prescriptive as Le Corbusier (11) with his Unité d'Habitation, in Marseilles, but to put in a plea for those examples in which the bones of a network of shared facilities are delivered successfully and can be given more flesh, without the commercial edge: public laundries (12), community cafes, local libraries, tool and plant lending schemes, public transport and so on. This used to happen a little more often in the UK before post-war governments promoted the concept of the eternal present, in which history and memory fades. At this point, a little reference to the French ideal of fraternité is in order. As secretary of the Union of Women of the Paris Commune Nathalie Le Mel set up the city's first ever Restaurant Communautaire in 1871, called La Marmite(13).

Even the most discerning of us now possess too much at home, which hinders the way in which we separate what we need from what we have. A useful thing would therefore be to revert to more sharing, but at a higher level. With advances in production and knowledge at least a 30% of materials and power consumption could be eliminated.

A less individualistic society could find fertile ground in the reality that >80% of the UK population live in urban areas, have grown up in a society that helped to pioneer social production in factories and have experienced the dissolution of some repressive family mores and traditions. Social consumption could become more acceptable than it ever was in the days when many forms of sharing were an absolute necessity. Although the author's tone is a little propagandist and refers to a different time and society, a few pages of "the Jungle" (14) offer a rant about sharing – an alternative future in which domestic life is improved and simplified when facilities are shared, not accumulated acquisitively in private. The pages concerned are as relevant to today as they ever were but for environmental and social reasons rather than economic ones. Here, the socially isolating effect of private acquisitions is worth reflecting on too.

My twin brother (15) started an informal tool and equipment 'share' in a suburban garage. Although it works, locally there is still scepticism about its validity and worth. Anecdotally this points to a deep-rooted psychic weakness that is constantly exploited in all of us. We understand the good sense in sharing - even small items - but find it difficult to abandon the spirit of property for reasons of comfort, convenience, individualism, privacy and security. We could do well to confront our acquisitiveness and conditioning because they reinforce the animal way in which we squirrel away all that 'stuff'.

In 2015 the sentiment underlying the advertising slogan "Every home should have one" needs to be abandoned once and for all, if only because the world's total population is now 7.3 billions (16). With this population any attempt to fairly spread the effort of stabilising CO2 emissions in order to avoid irreversible global warming and the loss of energy security would, according to an interesting Swiss study (17), require that each citizen be restricted to 17520kWh per year for his or her needs, or a maximum continuous energy use of 2000W.

Working to keep within this 'target' (18), my household of four now consumes 3000kWh (19) for power and nearly 6000kWh for gas annually. We also re-cycle and salvage, which helps to discount some of our impacts. Yet we have not included other demands of the average citizen that fall within the scope of this study: for work places, food and optional goods, public infrastructure, public transport, our total annual water consumption of 61000 litres and for air travel. Nor do we know much about them (20). It is clear then, that if we calculate our total it will exceed the overall, average, continuous energy use of 2000W per citizen and that if each of our children start their own families they will have to reduce their carbon-based fuel contribution to this overall 2000W to a maximum continuous 500W.

Whatever course of action is taken, our consumer durables, domestic appliances, or white goods are problematic if we make the sane decision to defend the environment and public health and avoid resource wars. Such a decision would also redress the imbalance caused by a failure of the utilitarian approach to life to meet the ends of life.

                                                        Nicolas Holliman:             World Earth Day 2015


(1) The mechanically tougher top loading washing machine with a vertical axle was substituted with the more fragile side loader with a horizontal axle in order to reduce size.

(2) Institute of Navigation, April 2015.

(3) "Technics and Civilisation", 1934. See also the diffuse and less scholarly tomes of Vance Packard: "the Waste-Makers" and "the Hidden Persuaders".

(4) Slogans used for official stickers, posters and announcements on radio and TV

(5) Batteries are classified as hazardous and toxic waste.

(6) A World Health Organisation calculation. WHO's "Global Status Report on Road Safety - 2013" gives a worldwide total of 1.24 million fatalities per year resulting from all types of road traffic accidents. Their tables of "Road User Deaths" do not separate car drivers and passengers from those in all 4-wheeled vehicles.

(7) Roland Barthes, who was knocked down and run over by a car.

(8) The Turkish dolmus. Shared taxis are illegal in the UK.

(9) The White Bicycle plan, Amsterdam 1965-69: "While their parents, seated on refrigerators and washing machines, watched TV with their left eyes, and their cars with their right eyes, a mixer in one hand and "De Telegraaf" in the other, the kids left Saturday evening for Spul Square." The bikes were not locked but parked at will and ended up in just a few places. The schemes in Paris and London avoided this by using dispersed, lockable docking stations.

(10) "The greatest happiness for the greatest number" and the util as a measure of how much everyone benefits and no one loses from an action. The Benthamites and Adam Smith did not include the environment and wildlife in their equations.

(11) He explored the architecture of future urban environments in a progressive way but his view of urban society was regressive.

(12) The public laundry and baths facilities in Kentish Town, London were exemplary. There used to be many others like them through the country.

(13) "Une Bretonne Revolutionnaire et Feministe", Eugene Kerbaul. In Frank Jellinek's "The Paris Commune of 1871"(1937) there is no such reference, nor of the barricade in Place Blanche nor of Le Mel's transportation for 6 years to New Caledonia with Louise Michel. In some parts of France however she is still commemorated by the use of the term Le Communard for the chef who creates the meal for other cooks working in a restaurant.

(14) Upton Sinclair, "The Jungle", 1906

(15) Jonathan Holliman, "Waste-Age Man", Wayland, 1974, "The Consumers' Guide to the Protection of the Environment", Pan/Ballantyne/FOE, 1971.

(16)  United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division.

(17) It is not surprising that this kind of on-going study from 1998, carried out by the Swiss Federal Institute, was started in Zurich, which is the city of Calvinism.
For gas consumption alone other studies identify a maximum of 6000kWh per person per year.

(18) It is my household version of the Environmental Management and Audit Scheme (EMAS), devised by the European Union.

(19) According to my supplier, the Fuel Mix disclosure for my power consumption in 2013-14 was: 86.5% renewable, 7.2% coal, 4.1% natural gas, 1.3% nuclear, 0.9% other.Therefore my CO2 emissions are 88.6 g/kWh in contrast to the national average of 428 g/kWh and 0.00010 g/kWh for high-level radioactive waste in contrast to the national average of 0.00173 g/kWh.

(20) The energy and resource burdens on the environment generated by the aluminium products that flow through our household and the limits to our use of refillable containers are the only other energy-related impacts calculated so far.