• Reading Level 5
Geography | Citizenship

The people who fix rubbish to mend the Earth

THE GREEN REVOLUTION: 5/5 Culture. Is throwaway culture the heart of the problem? Each year, humans discard two billion tonnes of waste worldwide, causing untold harm to our fragile planet. At a town hall in suburban Paris, Bruno and Imene are staring in confusion at a set of red kitchen scales. “Did you spill water on it?” asks volunteer repairman Bruno as he sets aside his pastry to open up the scales, which are decorated with the words “keep calm and make jam”. “The wiring inside appears to have been fried.” Both are desperate to fix the scales. For Imene, it means money spared and a future filled with dozens of jars of homemade jam. For Bruno, it means one more item saved from landfill. This is a typical scene at one of Paris’s dozen “repair cafes”, a monthly initiative to allow Parisians to fix household objects with the help of volunteers. The repair cafe project, which began more than a decade ago in Amsterdam, aims to solve what many see as a growing crisis. “We’re a society of waste and overconsumption” says Emmanuel Vallée, the organiser of Repair Cafe Paris. “We throw things away that we don’t need to.” For activists like Vallee, the scale of the waste is staggering. Each year, 900 million tonnes of food is thrown away, unused. And in 2016, the world produced 45 million tonnes of e-waste, worth an incredible £54.6bn. The problem is not just economic. Illegal shipments of e-waste from Europe to toxic dumping grounds in countries like the Philippines have polluted local water sources and corrupted food supply chains. And if food waste was a country, it would be the planet’s third biggest emitter of greenhouse gases. So why do we live in a throwaway society? “The idea that something that works fine should be replaced is now so ingrained in our culture that few people question it,” writes journalist Gaia Vince. In reality, social historians trace the throwaway mindset back only as far as the 20th Century. In the early 1900s, a manufacturing revolution changed the way we live forever. New plastic consumer products, from the radio to the television, brought modernity to the table of every Western home. In one 1940s poll, “cellophane” was even rated the third most beautiful word in the English language. But manufacturers had a problem. If items did not break, no one would ever buy a new one. So factories began to produce single-use plastics, designed to be bought and immediately discarded. Moreover, it is this realisation that led to the infamous “lightbulb conspiracy”, when a group of German, US and British companies were caught colluding to sell lightbulbs that had a lifetime of just 1,000 hours, far below what was technically possible. Today, this practice is known as planned obsolescence. But now environmentalists are fighting back, utilising ideas both old and new to solve the worldwide waste crisis. In Japan, people practise the ancient art of Kintsugi, repairing broken pottery with seams of gold. Meanwhile, scientists in America have a much more modern solution to waste in their sights: eco-friendly jet fuel made from food scraps could be powering test flights as soon as 2023. Is throwaway culture the heart of the problem? Rubbish rebellion Yes, say some. The statistics speak for themselves. Analysts suggest that extending the lifetime of all smartphones, washing machines, notebooks and vacuum cleaners in the EU by just one year would save four million tonnes of carbon dioxide annually by 2030. The staggering amount of waste we send to landfill each year is causing an environmental crisis. This needs to change now. No, say others. Recycling is a virtuous task, but no amount of waste prevention will solve this unfolding global catastrophe. The damage is done; discarded items already clutter the Earth. Moreover, it is not ordinary people who are responsible for throwaway culture – two thirds of Europeans want to repair their broken items. Rather, it is the companies who make their products impossible to fix. KeywordsGreenhouse gases - Greenhouse gases, which increase the atmosphere's capacity to hold heat, are vital to life on Earth: without them the planet would be freezing. But human activity is disturbing the delicate balance that created the conditions for life as we know it. Carbon dioxide is responsible for 60% of the manmade greenhouse effect, but we also produce smaller quantities of methane, ozone and nitrous oxide, which are even more damaging.

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