Swinging a wrench and singing the blues
By IAN HARVEY Ernest Lee’s life is etched on his face and hands.…
“And look at this chair, we got it off the curb!”
My daughter Meaghan grinned broadly as she showed off the white upholstered chair which looked brand new to me.
“Someone threw it out all we had to do was fix the leg,” she said. “And this dining room table and chairs we got on Kijiji.ca. And this set of dishes.”
At 30-years-old and well into her career as a food services manager at a refinery north of Edmonton, Meaghan and partner Jon are more interested in the art of the deal than going to the mall and buying new.
It’s not just the money. Millennials are rejecting the prolific spending habits of their parents’ generation where sales were driven by conspicuous consumerism.
Meet the New Consumer who is sending fear into the hearts of retail giants as economist run to their charts and calculators to figured out how this trend is going to impact the economy as it grows, driven in no small part by emerging government policies.
Back then it was Generation Waste: Brand over price where things were disposable. If it broke or wore out you simply threw it out and bought a “new and improved” version.
That was then. The so-called Linear Economy is on its way out, victim of a combination of a soft economy where money is tight, a generation’s rejection of hard sell advertising and a newly discovery in the value of repairing something rather than sending it to landfill. Combine those factors with the always-connected-digital-society and it’s a perfect storm bringing the winds of change.
In Toronto, Paul Magder and his son run the Repair Café in the west end. It’s place where folks can bring in their lamps, toasters and other items and meet up with handy-men and women who will try and not only fix what’s broken but show them how.
“We have people who can fix iPads, phones appliance anything,” Magder says of his “fixer” volunteers. “But it’s not just a repair service. It’s about learning. You have to sit and watch and learn.”
The idea came from Holland where for five years, the concept of fix-it-don’t-toss-it has taken root. Meanwhile Sweden wants to make repairing things cheaper than buying new as a way to divert waste from landfill.
In Gibson B.C. Buddy Boyd of Zero Waste Canada has taken the quest of stopping things from going to landfill to new heights. Granted, he’s a bit obsessive but people probably thought the same when early adopters of recycling took to separating their garbage before the Blue Box program came along.
It’s a throwback as U.S. consumer advocate Ralph Nader notes to the Repair Economy which was prevalent during the Great Depression and indeed during WWII/.
It’s time to move from the Disposable Economy, Nader says, and people are listening.
The New Consumer would rather fix or repair and spend hours on their mobile looking for a deal on Kijiji.ca or some other locally based Buy-and-Sell group or buy vintage clothing at down to earth prices.
The Linear Economy is buy-use-dispose. The Circular Economy is about being a discerning consumer. They could buy new but they’re happier with a lower price – or free – and put some work into cleaning up or fixing something. They’d rather boast about the deal on Social media than fork over their credit card at the mall for a big brand item.
And that’s terrifying to big retail chains and brands not just because they’re losing customers but because they’re going to be stick with paying for new diversion programs.
In the Circular Economy goods and food don’t end up in dumps. They’re resold, repaired, recycled or re-engineer them into new products.
It’s the next natural progression from the late 1990s when Canadians were extolled to Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. Now we’ve added Resell, Repair and Re-engineer.
Sweden is taking the lead, structuring tax to make it more attractive to recycle, reuse or re purpose something than throw it away.
We all know recycled steel, copper, nickel and lead have value just by watching the scrappers prowl the neighbourhood on garbage day. Bottles, newspapers and packing go into Blue Bins, organic waste goes in the Green Bin (or Brown in some cities) and regular garbage goes into the regular garbage bin.
Take construction waste. Only about 40 per cent of construction and demolition waste is recycled. There’s money in the steel beams and siding and concrete and bricks can be used as clean fill on new projects. Asphalt shingles can be ground up and reused to make roads and as can old asphalt paving.
Wood, however, is a problem. While it can be ground up to make chips for MDF (medium density fibres) which in turn make up trim lumber and chipboard or turned into animal bedding, stove pellets or garden mulch, there aren’t enough businesses taking it in. The same with drywall which can be remanufactured into new dryway a soil treatment or a compost additive.
But it isn’t happening fast enough.
In fact in Ontario over the last five years three major manufacturers invested hundreds of million in new plant facilities to divert waste and recycle and re-manufacture only to go bust because they couldn’t compete with cheap new materials.
Now the push is on to eliminate that regular garbage can and stop the stream of waste going to landfills. Not just reduce. Stop.
The Waste Free Ontario Act passed last June seeks to end landfills as an option for all waste and kick start the Circular Economy.
Governments all over are using a carrot and stick approach with tax credits and tax penalties to bring industry and other players into line, cutting back on landfills, raising dump prices and forcing producers to pay for Blue Box programs, claiming they’re the problem in the first place.
My mother would be proud. She’s a Post-War cohort who grew up in England during WW2 where she learned frugality and austerity first hand. Holed socks were darned, shirts were mended or used for rags, shoes were sent to the cobblers and there was never any question of wasted food. One way or another, scraps were put to use, either as soup stock or to feed the animals or as compost.
You grew what you could, you bartered for what you couldn’t and you never bought new for yourself unless it was a wedding or a funeral and even then on deep circumspection.
She hated waste, hated throwing things away that could be put to better use. She would have loved Kijiji.ca and the Repair Café.
As a Late Phase Boomer she imprinted those lessons on me at every turn and she would be proud of her Millennial grand daughter’s newly discovered sense of responsibility and economy.
I wrote this as a pitch six months ago. No one responded so I published it. I guess I’m repurposing!