Leigh posted this image of a skip outside our work. This skip has become somewhat of a symbol for all that is wrong with our attempts at sustainability. It has been there for months, usually filled with building detritus, sometimes computing packaging (as in the photo), and, for a while, the contents of science labs (glassware now adorning my mantelpiece after successful rescue mission). Keep this image in mind while I detour around an old cartoon.
I still have a strip from Burton Silver’s Bogor (from about 1987). In it Bogor is completing the Woodsman’s Annual Examination:
Q: Describe how to selectively log a forest.
A: First you select a forest, then you log it.
I kept it because I was at university studying botany and geography, this answer summed up for me all that was wrong with the world – people who clearly had no idea of ecology/ecosystems, even critical thinking.
Now I wonder what the right answer was. Oh, I know what the technical answer is – something about careful selection of a small proportion of mature trees. Is this though the best answer? What would we expect a woodsman practicing sustainability to do?
Let’s simplify the question. Instead of getting bogged down in ecosystem population dynamics, let’s ask Bogor a different question:
Q: Describe the proper management of chainsaw oil to protect forest streams.
We can easily describe the use of drip trays when changing oil, disposal of waste oil and so on. We could easily even write learning outcomes to assess against and teach it to a class of Bogors.
Here’s where it gets difficult. Imagine you’ve just graduated as a certified Woodsman, all keen on sustainable practices. My bet is that you won’t last till lunchtime. You’ll have a performance goal of 5 trees an hour and even if not working to formalised goals, you’ll be one of a crew, the pay for all of them tagged to productivity of the group. Your being careful (and slow) will not go un-noticed and will almost certainly be the subject of considerable haranguing at smoko. You will need to have a strategy to counter strong arguments to the contrary, and, hopefully, support from elsewhere in the organisation.
At a higher level, what behaviour do we expect of Bogor when told to go and cut down the last stand of a native tree? To what extent can we expect (or perhaps require) a value change? Remember Bogor was always torn – on one panel he would clearfell a forest, the next be crying for the now homeless birds. We would, of course, hope that Bogor wouldn’t be put in this situation – that his employer would be engaging in sustainable forest management at a higher level.
Three things from this detour:
- Before we criticise, we need to be able to describe alternative behaviours.
- Skills and knowledge need to be supported by strategy for sustainable practitioners.
- Sustainable practitioners are dependent on systematic support from their organisation.
So, back to the skip. Filled with computing packaging, bound for landfill.
Computer Professional’s Annual Examination.
Q: You have to unpack, connect, power, network, image, and test 30 computers for use in teaching lab, first classes tomorrow. What is the most important part of your job? (Hint – the answer isn’t folding boxes for recycling).
What, exactly, would we have the computer technicians do? Clearly the boxes could be recycled. Dunedin (where we are) has a recycling system: kerbside for domestic and rates for commercial customers.
The post-consumer and post-industrial expanded polystyrene is widely described as problematic. None of the local waste organisations seem to have an answer for it. Nor can it be significantly reduced – protecting a fragile electronic device during shipping is not a simple task. There is a New Zealand company, Bondor who recycle polystyrene, but it is expensive: $15 per cubic metre.
A different option is to reduce the amount of packaging. For computing this is very hard, the packaging is not usually marketing material but protective. In the longer run, initiatives such as Dell’s Multipack packaging look promising – although it is limited at present to servers it could presumably be extended to multiple PC installations. A further option would be to consider packaging in terms of product of service – something that is owned by the supplier. None of these solutions, however, are in the scope of the individual technician.
The bigger cost is the time of the technicians. Preparing this skip-load of boxes for recycling would take perhaps a couple of hours. I don’t believe it sensible to have the technicians do this, at least not without recognition that it will detract from their productivity measure (ie getting the computer suite operational). While we might argue that recycling should be to integral to all that we do, I believe it unfair to require this (or criticise anyone for not doing it) until some changes are made.
I do not believe that the skip full of potentially recyclable computer packaging is a problem of education of consequences (remember my dismissal of Bogor’s critical thinking and ecology/ecosystems knowledge). We have all experienced doing something unsustainable, felt uncomfortable doing it but rationalised the action as ‘just this once’ (for a deep view on this see Saltmann-Frese’s eco-pschology). What is needed is a set of strategies for the individual as what to do next. At this point I don’t have the answers here, just pointing out the question. Crucially, the individual needs to be empowered and supported to do something.
There is waste cardboard produced across the institution. Every day. Every department. The institution urgently needs a recycling strategy. It is crucial, however, that this is not just the appearance of a green skip.
This needs a strategy. It should include an analysis of costs (including time) and recognition that it might cost more. In the computer technicians case it will take longer. Either this is recognised in their productiviy expectations or a waste person works with them.
The computer technicians also can’t be expected to follow up on the details of recycling. Dunedin’s boxes are sent to somewhere in Asia for processing. Is this truly sustainable? I don’t know, but while the institution should care, I don’t believe it the jobs of the individuals to investigate.
There is clearly an imperative to take the sustainable option (though not, as yet, a directive). Individuals need to be empowered to take this option. Let’s say the recycling approach to the skip costs 10% more. Sure do it. 20% more? 30% more? 100% more? A more significant approach would be to refuse computers from suppliers that didn’t have a system of packaging reuse. Big call though.
In order to make change we need collective individual responsibility. We need to empower the computer technicians to take action. To do this they need support from the organisation (such as investigating options); clear expectations and boundaries within which they can make their own decisions; institutional action (green skips, waste managers), and; responsive institutional processes.