24 Mar. 2008

Another Man's Treasure

I spend a fair bit of time at the local Tip Shop, where goods scavenged by the local contractors (you need a license from Council these days) are on sale for next to nothing. Over the past few years I have bought a canoe, a surf ski, several mirrors, doors and other renovation items, furniture, kids toys, gardening tools, and more. Most of my family is vaguely ashamed by my enthusiasm: my wife makes faces whenever I bring something home, and the kids don't value Tip Shop items as much as retail products (no matter what condition they are in). But personally I think this is a great way to keep the planet green. And it's fun too!

I get angry about the amount of household rubbish we have to discard nowadays, either because of increasingly shoddy workmanship (usually "Made In China") or because fixing things costs more than buying new items. I had an old Subaru 4WD, for example, which I sold for $50 to a car removals guy who said it was only good for scrap metal. Although it wasn't roadworthy, it was still going fine: all it needed was some TLC and a few hundred dollars. But we needed a bigger car for a growing family and I didn't have the time to fix it myself.

Then there is the practice of "inbuilt obsolescence" whereby manufacturers build items with parts which are guaranteed to fail after a certain period of time. I once worked with an electronics firm where engineers showed me tiny diodes, for example, which almost always failed after approximately three years of use. When you welded one of these diodes onto a circuit board, you were stamping the product with an indelible "Use By" date!

From an business perspective, inbuilt obsolescence is great: it guarantees repeat business for the industry. But what does it say about our society when we allow such greedy practices to empty our pockets and kill our environment?

Check out this McClatchy article about global scavengers. It suggests we should re-appraise these lowly workers:
In Indonesia, the world's fourth most populous country, trash pickers recycle a third of all garbage, Medina said.

Trash pickers also reduce emissions of methane produced by rotting garbage in open-air dumps. That's no small contribution, considering methane wreaks more than 20 times the global-warming damage than carbon dioxide does.

"Environmentally, they're having a big effect," Medina said. "But they're not getting the support of governments. The entire system is based around economics, and people only turn to this when they have no other choice. Unemployment and layoffs are what's pushing many people into doing it."
The article focuses on Developing World environments where people have no other choice but scavenging. In Australia, however, there is no such underclass to fulfill this role, so we are literally wasting a huge percentage of our waste! It doesn't have to be this way.
Earlier this month, hundreds of trash pickers from 40 countries met in Bogota, Colombia, for the field's first ever worldwide convention. At the top of the agenda was how to win jobs in professional, city-run recycling programs that are beginning to appear around the world.
If that sounds like a scene from Kenny, there is a similar feel-good ending to the story. The article cites a new co-op in a poor suburb of Rio de Janeiro, where 100 workers salvage about 165 tons of material every month.
Each worker earns on average more than $700 a month, which is three times Brazil's minimum wage and about the country's median income.
Interestingly, Brazil's biggest oil company, Petrobas, pitched in to help set up the co-op (it's state-owned). We need some similarly enlightened thinking here in Australia.