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At Loggerheads:

Conservationists in Dispute

Green Consumerism: A Meeting with RE/nato Labs

RE/nato lab: lamps made from waste-acetate

When speculating on the future of urban wildlife; a huge factor depends on the global and local management of waste and natural material resources. The many ways we manage our sewers, line our landfills, and recycle our plastics today; will affect the behaviours of other species within the wider urban ecology tomorrow. All wildlife depends - at least to some degree - on territorial stability to develop natural habitats, form hunting and breeding grounds, and build personal security. Whether that means creating a sizeable floating island of rotting waste to sustain a healthy seagul population; or regularly litter-picking a coastline to protect turtle-nesting sites...both approaches actively sculpt the world around us.

The move towards more 'sustainable' and 'circular-economic' solutions to waste management are largely born out of a desire for cultural preservation, rather than a deep love for the environment in its current form. Efforts to cultivate an efficient society of recyclers are, by their very nature, efforts to improve the resilience of a particular facet of our culture (i.e our consumer culture). But the 'circular-economic' approach is flawed insofar as it fails to acknowledge the very fact that facets of our culture must to be sustainably sculpted...much in the same way as a healthy ecology. Take our mobile technology industries for example. Of the 62 metals extracted and used in modern technologies (phones, laptops, solar panels, wind turbines), only a handful of elements such as osmium and tin have chemically sustainable substitutes when natural resources inevitably run out. Elements such as lead, europium, thallium, and dysprosium, have no possible substitute at all (see table below). The hunt for these precious metals will only exacerbate current geopolitical divides and inequalities as demand grows, and recycling these metals will only slow this process down. Minerals sourced in the Congo may be exported to London via China, recycled in Copenhagen, before eventually being buried and burned in Agbogbloshie.

The point here is that unlike the sustainable cultivation healthy ecosystems, the new catch-all solution of 'circular economy' is not truly sustainable, as it only serves to sustain a culture of consumption. We have a lot to learn from existing ecologies about multilateralism if we are to build truly sustainable societies. And 'green consumerism', as appealing as it may be to commodity-led businesses, is not the answer.

I meet with Aining Ouyang, Chief Operating Officer at REnato Lab, to discuss her work and why promoting a 'circular economy (CE)' is important to her business model. Aining supports CE as a selling tool, but agrees that much more must be done to cultivate a society that reduces, reuses, and replaces material goods.

The meeting begins with a presentation of the products that REnato Lab are currently working on. Their company tag-line is “Relive Everything”, as their primary business model is to buy material-waste, and turn it into furniture. The products on display are wonderfully crafted, and Aining asserts that the company is trying to compete with high-end design brands without having to rely on their obvious USP as a 'sustainable' brand.

I question Aining on the so-called natural aesthetics of her products, and she explains:

"customers like the natural look. They think if it is made from raw material like wood or stone then it is good for the environment when actually it's not". I agree with her reasoning, but argue that by creating a faux-style, this only exacerbates the misconception as it actively promotes the original aesthetic. Aining agrees, but says she's just giving the people what they want: the comforting aesthetic of rusticity.

A workshop by REnato - challenging children to reinvent their waste.

We talk more about the benefits and drawbacks of CE, before turning onto the topic of the built environment. Aining says she is keen to explore the idea of creating a building material from waste - so I show her the recent work of Tetronic International Ltd. The company is creating a building material called 'Plasmarok', which has recently been approved by British Standards as an aggregate that can be used in concrete mixtures. The rock is actually a by-product from their WTE gasification process that extracts fuel from e-waste, but they have tested and marketed the by-product so that the plant is now technically 'circular'. I explain that while this is a perfect example of 'circular economics' at play - the conglomerate metals that are being gasified to generate fuel could arguably be put to better use. CE does not account for this, which is why it gives a false indicator of sustainable practice.

Aining likes the model, but again agrees that recycling would be more appropriate. She tells me that Taipei is an excellent role model for recycling, because the garbage trucks play music to let residents know that it's recycling time. This nudge-theory-style invention was introduced in 1987, and a culture of recyclers have been cultivated to the sound of Beethoven's “Für Elise” ever since. Apparently the trucks are being renovated with new tracks, so don't be alarmed if you hear a Bieber cover accompanied with flashing lights the next time you visit Taipei. It's just garbage.

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