Sharing economy specialist & Wayblaze co-founder
Over the past few decades, the amount of stuff that the average North American owns has skyrocketed. Perhaps the best evidence of this is the dramatic increase in self-storage facilities across the continent. The personal goods storage industry has now reached $38 billion revenues per year, which is 3 times larger than the entire Hollywood film industry ($11 billion). The indoor space allocated to storing our stuff is a staggering 2.4 billion square feet, enough for every person in Canada and the US to stand inside without touching one another.It would be fair to say that, to a large extent, all the gains we have made in reducing per capita waste going to landfill, are being offset by the increase in space allocated to storing stuff. We are effectively just shifting our waste from landfills to building fills. The stuff we own but don’t use (as it sits in a kind of jail in storage lockers, garages, and attics) is just as wasteful as throwing it away. Trash and storage are just two different outcomes of the same problem and if we are to overcome them we need to make a cultural shift towards greater reuse.
One important initial step we can take is to identify all the stuff that we have stored in our attics, basements, garages or storage lockers and either begin using them or let them go so that others can use them. Contributing goods to a Tool Lending Library or a Neighbourhood Sharing Shed (such as a “Thingery” or lending library of things) are particularly good ways to put your wasted idle assets to good use. Wouldn’t it be great to have a sharing shed in each neighbourhood where you could access items that you rarely use such as tools, press-washers, ladders, extra bikes, etc?
With the possible exception of libraries, our first instinct when we need a product is to simply go out and buy it. However, this has created asset-heavy lifestyles where we are literally burdened by possessions that we hardly ever use. More and more people, particularly millennials, are choosing asset-light lifestyles where they access the things they need rather than owning them. Fortunately, there are a growing number of apps, such as Quupe.com (pronounced “coop”), where people can borrow or rent the personal possessions of others.
It is easy to think of “finding a home” for the stuff you no longer want or rarely use, as a chore because of the hassle factor of making the exchange of goods. However, many people who connect with others to share their stuff report that while their first motivation to do so was to earn money or save money, they are surprised at the extra, community-building benefits. Every exchange of goods creates an opportunity to meet someone new, learn how to best use the items, and feel good about helping others.
Many used goods stores, particularly used building stores and thrift stores, are crowded and un-organized. This makes them unappealing to many people. However, if efforts were made to present them in a more aesthetically pleasing way, with a little design flair, then many more people would see them in a different light and be more likely to choose them over new items. This was perhaps the motivation for the creation of an entire mall in Sweden that only sells second hand goods and presents them in the “Ikea” style of staged rooms.
One of the biggest reasons why people haven’t been bothered to sell, donate, or rent their items to others is that it is a hassle to organize the exchange. However, a growing number of digital technologies now make it much easier to connect people that have things with the people that want those things. One great example is Stuffstr.com, which works with retailers (currently in the UK) to capture all the details about your purchases (e.g. image, description, features, model number, warranty, price) in your “my staff” app so that when you no longer want them you can set your price, press a button and someone will pick them up at your door.
While we talk about reuse as being more important than recycling in the 3R’s hierarchy, we completely fail to demonstrate that at our waste facilities. It you go to most transfer stations or landfills, you can recycle or dispose all you want but reuse is almost entirely absent. Worse, if you see a perfectly good bicycle on the tipping room floor and try to put it in your car, the anti-sharing police will instruct you to put it back in the disposal pile, citing liability concerns. We could easily change that by allowing reuse charities to position their collection vehicles at the entrance to each facility so people could present reusable items to the staff of those charities and avoid the tipping fee if the charities are willing to accept them. This would make it so much easier for people to donate unwanted items and the charities would be able to pre-screen the items they receive.
While many old items frankly look unappealing, with a little creativity, they can be transformed into something that it is eco-chic and that has real value. There are entire stores popping up to sell repurposed items, many of which could be viewed as works of art.
Not only do these repurposed items prevent more waste going to landfill, they are a real conversation piece that can be a source of pride and eco-bragging rights for their owners. A great example is the Remakery in Edinburgh.
Because of the extra handling involved, it often costs more to recover and handle reusable materials than it does to dispose of them. This is particularly true when it comes to the demolition of buildings. However, one Vancouver-based deconstruction company, called Unbuilders, is working to change that. They deconstruct home by hand and issue the owner a tax receipt for the salvaged materials that is large enough that it makes the net cost of deconstruction lower than the cost of demolition.
Repair shops or fix-it shops are a great way to reduce waste, save money and build community. Perhaps the most successful example of this is the Repair Café. It was started in 2009 in Amsterdam by a woman named Martine Postma and essentially is a coffee shop where you can enjoy a cup of coffee and repair your broken household items or clothes with help from others. There are now 1,500 Repair Cafes in 33 countries around the world.
Perhaps the deepest and most long lasting way to foster reuse is to establish whole communities where reuse and sharing are an intrinsic part of their identity and their way of living. While this may seem very hypothetical, one community called Barking and Dagenham, just north of London, UK, is striving to do just that. Their goal is to implement 250 projects, create 100 new businesses and engage 25,000 residents over 5 years to create a true culture of reuse and sharing. Their video describing their plan is truly inspiring.