The life system of today’s humanity is the result of economic growth, and problems that major cities face are mainly focused on areas that can be resolved by technological advancement and economic growth, such as poverty and illness. However rapid growth and advancement across the globe led to qualitative diversification of urban issues, and the humanity focused on the concept of sustainable development and limit in growth resulting from social imbalance and unsustainable phenomenon that are being observeds regardless of region. The concept of sustainability was first mentioned in the report, The Limits to Growth written by the Club of Rome in 1972. World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED,1987) defined ‘sustainability’ as ‘development that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs’, and it is recently being used broadly across economic, management, climate, environmental and national policies and private activities.
Sustainable Development Goals (https://sdgs.un.org/goals)
In 2015, UN member states selected 17 Sustainable Development Goals for inclusive and ‘sustainable’ development. Sustainability that global organization is defining is the concept that aims to achieve harmony and balance without compromising the conditions and wasting resource across all areas that are required for the humanity to live such as the economy, society and environment. After UN selected the sustainable development goals, various cities across the globe announced initiatives and presented relevant visions for actual sustainable development in a broad sense while pursuing a balance between the current and future generations, harmony of conservation and development, and coexistence of people and resource. In order to achieve the sustainable development goals, approach should be taken as national and city-level policies, but in addition, participation of the private sector, the civil society and individuals are also critical. I would like to take a deeper look into the approaches on sustainable development while centering on areas that are closely related to the daily lives at the current point where we should discover opportunities and issues that our society is facing with continued interest and implementation by the citizens.
Consumption lifestyle in the city and environmental destruction
The modern society is a consumption society that has been enhanced through mass production and large-scale distribution. Today’s city is the result of economic growth and advancement of science and technology that was mainly driven by production and consumption, and the members of society, who are the main agents of the consumption society repeated symbolic consumption to improve the quality of life through individualized consumption. Excessive production and consumption activities harmed and depleted the limited resource of earth and caused environmental destruction. Disposable products and packaging materials that are proportionate to consumption and issues to treat waste resulting from food and industrial products are causing us to face a serious crisis that we can easily observe in our daily lives. According to the report published by World Bank, the amount of global waste that was measured as 2 billion ton in 2016 is projected to rise to 3.4 billion ton in 2050, and as such, some people are warning that the linear economic system that follows the path of production, consumption and waste in line with the increase in global population will accelerate environmental destruction, and threaten our survival.
Sustainable Development Goals (https://sdgs.un.org/goals)
UN selected sustainable products & consumption as the 12th sustainable development goals in 2015 while emphasizing that the perception regarding how consumption and production activities can directly impact the environment should be widely shared. ' Sustainable products & consumption ' emphasizes the need for economic activities to decrease emission of pollutants and waste while also reducing the use of harmful materials and natural resources in the entire lifecycle of products and services. Detailed contents include efficient use of natural resource, reduction of food waste in the distribution process and food waste that generate greenhouse gas, eco-friendly management of waste and reduction in waste through recycling and reusing. In order to raise the efficiency of resource and energy, create sustainable infrastructure and provide a better quality of life to all that the corresponding items are targeting, the form of production and consumption has to change. In other words, there has to be a design that can fundamentally limit the generation of various harmful substances and waste which considers the entire process from the product production stage to the lifecycle of the product.
Life consisting of fixing and repairing, Repair Café in the Netherlands
We tend to scrap products and replace them with new ones when a product that we used to use becomes aged or does not function properly. Mass produced system that continuously produces products with new and useful features led the drop in prices of products, and we are currently living lives where we are consuming more and more and discarding more. It is clearly true that the natural consumption activities of using and discarding objects cannot be repeated permanently in the midst of limited resource. Therefore, in today’s society, the world is in agreement that we need to be aware of such excessive consumption pattern and take countermeasures from the perspective of sustainable development that encompass the present and the future generations.
How is the lifetime of an object determined? Can we not turn it into a useful object by partially modifying some functions?
In October, 2009, Repair Culture was born through the Repair Café in Amsterdam in the Netherlands with a critical mind about the above issue and resistance against excessive consumption. Repair Café that encourages citizens to bring in broken objects and provides help in repairing them used to be operated as a pop-up store at first, but started regular operation against the backdrop of positive responses from the citizens. In January, 2011, Repair Café International Foundation was established to officially continue activities to spread the repair culture with financial resource such as various funding and subsidy provided by the government of the Netherlands.
Repair Café was affected by Repair Manifesto of Platform21, a non-profit organization in the Netherlands comprised of designers. This manifesto inspires designers from various industries and contributes to spreading the repair culture by conveying the message that repairing a broken object is more efficient than recycling based on the context ‘ Don’t be a slave to technology – be its master’. Repair Café spread quickly to major cities by various citizens who empathized with the need for repair culture, and as of January, 2021, it spread across the world to other countries such as UK, Belgium, Germany, India and Japan to repair 40,000 or so products with 30,000 or so volunteers.
Repair guide (https://www.repaircafe.org) Distribution of repair café across the world (https://www.repaircafe.org)
In Repair Café, volunteers with repair skills repair objects and record the repair information about the projects to share the information with global Repair Cafes, consumers and manufacturers. On top of offline space, online platform of the Repair Café plays an important function to induce engagement and operation. The online site of the Repair Café provides repair manuals for some products in various languages such as Dutch, German, French, Spanish and English, and based on experience, it emphasizes the need for a method to reduce burden on cost and increase the lifetimes of product parts to enhance the ease of repairing. When it became difficult to meet and visit offline due to Covid-19, non-face-to-face sessions were provided to allow users to find repair guides or listen to advices on repair on the online platform.
People who visit the Repair Café agree that reusing products through repair is a reasonable way to resolve issues of the linear economic system, and shares upcycling methods to recreate products that have reached end of life while considering ways to fix objects together with experts. Repair culture is also spreading in the direction of exchanging knowledge and deploying creative activities by naturally carrying out discussions about the price and life of products, and sharing concerns about the earth and the environment. Above all, activities of the Repair Café has huge social significance from the perspective that citizens in consensus about the awareness about the environment and resource voluntarily gather together to confirm the fact that discarded objects still have value and value is recreated from these objects.
Repair Café in the Netherlands ©Ilvy Njiokiktjien for The New York Times Repair volunteers in the Repair Cafe ©https://www.repaircafe.org/
As such, users are making various types of efforts to extend the life of products, and if design that considers the possibility of sustainable use, status of resource on earth and the balance of ecosystem and energy were to be applied from the early stage of product development, then, product life and repair possibility may be settled in as another competitiveness.
Reuse culture of Finland that extends the life of objects
In this manner, the cases and method to enable sustainable use by repairing, recycling or reusing products at the disposal stage is growing as an alternative to the linear economic system where it is difficult to circulate resource. These are similar terminologies, but the definition of recycling and reusing differ slightly. Recycling refers to the method of changing the original property by processing or synthesizing the product that has reached the end of life with the use of technology, and it grants the value of reusing by mixing with other materials or creating it as a raw material of a completely different product. Reusing refers to reusing the product in whole or as a part. It refers to continuously using the product as is or through a small amount of repair without going through special processing.
Finland has a unique reuse culture. The Finnish people are familiar with purchasing and using required products from stores that sell used goods, the representative type of reuse. Used goods stores in Finland are segmented in various ways depending on price, gender and age. The store types also vary from donation-type used stores to vintage shops and self-service shops that rent spaces. Daily necessities that were donated for free by people so others can use them, products that have to go through repair, or products that can be turned into new products through combinations can go through a certain repair process to obtain product value, and once this process is done, it finds new owners through various used goods stores.
In addition, in line with the positive perception on used products, 'Cleaning Day (Siivouspäivä)' event is held in Helsinki in between May and August of every year to encourage people to bring their goods to parks, alleyways, and vacant lots and sell them. This event that was organized by the citizens based on social media became a famous attraction of Finland, and this is a case that exhibits how the used product culture is a typical part of daily life and a part of the life for the Finnish people.
If we were to take a deeper look into the context of positive perception about used products and the settlement of the reuse culture in Finland, the Finnish Ministry of Environment allocated budget that accounts to KRW 600~700 million in the 1980s to support reusing products, and it seems to have vitalized officially in the Great Depression of the Finland economy (1991~1993) afterwards. In addition to the reuse culture that has been naturally embodied into the citizens, the reuse center that sells used products in large cities of Finland is hiring those in the marginalized class and continuously providing training on repairing and the environment. Moreover, it is taking initiatives to improve awareness about resource through workshop programs and providing training on the environment and expert lectures on topics such as resource saving, need for circular economy and the concept of carbon footprint for companies and communities that are interested in the circular economy and environmental issues. Such an example of Finland is one where the implementation of policy is led by the public center and the actions of citizens, who aided in settling in the resource reuse system as a culture, and I believe that through this, the number of used goods stores and relevant businesses increased gradually to extend the life of products and sustain a virtuous circle of reuse culture.
Seoul Upcycling Plaza that induces implementation of resource circulation
Seoul Upcycling Plaza, is a case in Korea that is similar to the case of Helsinki Reuse Center, and this plaza aims to improve awareness of citizens about resource circulation and supports various manufacturing and related activities. Seoul Upcycling Plaza is a complex cultural space that was established in 2017 to create an industrial ecosystem based on upcycling while widening the environmental, social and economic awareness about upcycling. It unified the material, design, manufacturing and distribution process and constructed a professional facility to promote reuse and circulation of resource, and is carrying out various training programs and support activities while providing various information about upcycling.
Material Bank at the Upcycling Plaza operates a permanent training program to raise the level of understanding about the upcycling materials, operates the material processing room that enables the sales of waste as upcycling materials, and provides material trade and distribution service. Material bank collects, cleans, categorizes and manages various waste that has reached the end of life so that it can be used again as a material for new products. Materials are donated by corporations or individuals, and in case there are materials that can be sold to the end-users at a reasonable price or materials that are required by companies that are located within the Upcycling Plaza, connections are made to allow smooth supply of materials by linking with relevant companies. In addition, information is provided so that not only designers and companies, but general citizens can also experience the process where everyday waste can be turned into upcycling materials to be recreated as new products, so that more people can be encouraged to realize upcycling.
Upcycle products tend to focus on social values rather than aesthetics of functional values as a result of heightened interest on sustainability, resource circulation, reuse and recycling. However, in the future, there will be more upcycled products with aesthetic value, efficiency and competitiveness if there were more efforts made, such as material bank, to provide a new perspective and new purpose to resources that are disposed of in our daily lives, and if so, upcycling can become another factor of market competitiveness, instead of being perceived as a product with special context.
Private-public network for continuous use of multi-use containers - Reuse Seattle
Consumption of disposable products surged globally with the rise in the use of delivery service and remote work due to Covid-19, and as a result, various attempts are being made both at home and abroad to reduce plastic consumption and seek out alternatives. According to the press release in Korea, plastic waste amounting to more than 530 million ton is estimated to have been generated globally for 7 months since the initial outbreak of Covid-19, and according to the research report of published by Seoul Development Institute, as of August, 2022, more than 2,300 ton of plastic waste is estimated to have been generated in a day in Seoul alone. The biggest issue is that a considerable amount of such garbage cannot be recycled as these are plastic compounds, and even when we just look at Seoul, of plastic waste that are emitted from each autonomous district, approximately 68% is recycled, but remaining 31.9% are incinerated or buried in landfill sites. Therefore, there is an urgent need to make efforts and attempts to reduce the use of disposable products and find alternatives.
Zero waste campaign to minimize the generation of waste in daily lives to be close to ‘0(zero)’, the use of multi-use containers to avoid the use of disposable packaging materials as much as possible, and recycling and waste sorting that aims for circular economic structure is gaining attention as alternatives, but these also involve several issues to be resolved. In particular, the use of multi-use containers can reduce the impact on climate by as much as 80%, and hence, is emerging as the suitable alternative to eliminate the consumption of disposable products, but since this is linked to the environmental burden and the power consumed in the washing process to allow reuse, there was a report that was announced to reveal that, in truth, products made of stainless materials would have to be used 220 times and products made of plastic materials would have to be reused 50 times to be meaningful (CIRAIG, Canadian environmental protection association).
The city also enacted and enforced regulation on the use of disposable products. State of California in US, enacted regulations to use reusable containers in restaurants in 2019 and the movement spread to surrounding cities. In 2022, the US government passed the bill that regulates the overall use of disposable plastic for the first time to establish a producer responsibility organization consisting of industrial representatives, and set plans to operate the recycling program that centers on the government.
In addition, Seattle government is enforcing policy known as, Reuse Seattle, to recycle resource. Reuse Seattle is a public-private partnership where Seattle government and major sports stadiums, restaurants, concert halls, movie theaters and so forth within the city cooperate to construct a system on reusable packaging. As mentioned above, it is important to construct an infrastructure on storage, cleaning and delivery in line with the usage cycle to reuse multi-use containers. Therefore, the department in charge of public utility of the Seattle Government constructed a cooperative network with ‘PR3’, a cooperative body for reuse, refill and replacement of disposable plastic, and ‘RESOLVE’, a non-profit organization, and developed the design standard of a reuse ecosystem that can be mutually operated between the public and the private sector. Both sectors have a common mission to provide a practical solution that has a positive impact on the food service industry, earth and public health, and grew rapidly while expanding the list of partners such as waste treatment companies, reuse service providers, consumables companies, restaurants, and Washington Environmental Council to achieve higher efficiency for both the city and the companies.
Seattle Public Utilities and its reuse partner, r.Cup, minimizes the carbon emission in line with the ‘Reuse Seattle’ program before manufacturing multi-use food and beverage containers to integrate the collection of containers, transportation, cleaning and delivery process. Multi-use cups that r.Cup provides were designed so that they can be used more than 1,000 times after going through cleaning and sterilization processes, and in Seattle, this system is mainly being applied in sports arenas or concert halls, where the return of containers can be appropriately controlled. r.Cup has the characteristic of applying a special design that reflects the attributes of the locations where people tend to enjoy beverages centering on sports stadiums and entertainment venues, and r.Cup built a large-scale cleaning hub facility in the economic development district of Seattle to minimize carbon in multi-use container cleaning process and logistics transportation process. Seattle ultimately aims to instill reuse culture in the daily activities of all communities by steadily expanding the use of multi-use containers through the Reuse Seattle program. Furthermore, if more cities were to adopt such a standard system, it may be possible to establish and sustain governance for interoperability between the public and the private sector.
Attempts to achieve sustainable development while reducing resource consumption is a necessity and an important initiative of our society. Global interest on climate crisis has heightened, and as a result, all industrial fields are focusing on ‘sustainable development’ based on a sense of crisis about climate change, that is, all fields are focusing on economic activities to reduce emission of pollutants and waste including the reduction of carbon emission and use of harmful materials and natural resource across the entire lifecycle of products and services. The change in the perception of consumers on sustainable value and consumption is expected to lead the change in the lifestyle and the spreading of mindset that thinks more about the larger benefit to the humanity and the environment.
Various touchpoints need to be generated because it is important to provide and spread accurate information to drive engagement of various agents in sustainable production and consumption activities. Repair Café in the Netherlands records the repair-related information that acts as a foundation of offline space and meeting on the website to spread the culture, and Helsinki Reuse Center is also driving engagement and actions of citizens by posting detailed information about the online platform so that everyone including the general citizens and companies that wish to participate in training programs and workshops can access desired information and participate directly. The cases of Seoul Upcycling Plaza and Reuse Seattle are based on the activities of offline space, but both cases are also sharing information through various online platforms such as websites and social network to enhance and spread awareness.
Spotlight was shone on indefinite interest on recycling and reusing as a method of advancement of sustainable cities, and thus, it was confirmed that extending the life of existing products and services can be the top-most activity for resource circulation and sustainable development without separate allocation of energy or cost. Furthermore, our society requires innovation of consumption pattern and sustainable production for the most efficient use of finite resource and sustainable use of products and services. For this to be possible, as was seen in various urban cases of the era, custom alternatives that reflect the needs and demands of the public sector, private sector, citizens and companies would have to be identified, and the system on resource discharge and reuse that is led by the industry and public governance would have to be elaborated for each step. Moreover, if various touchpoints are generated to allow voluntary participation of more stakeholders, and if this becomes more generalized, then accessibility to sustainable production and consumption in the city may also be enhanced.
Why does the Finnish people go to used shops? Hyunsun Park, Heybooks, 2019
Writer | Seunghee Hong (HongIk University)