09. July 2020
Topic:  Responsibility

🗑 Waste Overwhelm: Tackling the Biggest Threat of Our Time with Martin Hobrland

Stone Age to today - our waste habits have transformed. Martin Hobrland of "7 Cases of Waste" fame joins Michael Londesborough to trace this journey and discuss tangible steps we can take for a sustainable future.

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Interview transcript

ML (Michael Londesborough): Today I have with me Martin Hobrland, who founded the website trideniodpadu.cz and is also the author of the book “7 pádů odpadu” – in English "The 7 Falls of Waste", which is an overview of the human species relationship with the waste we create. Martin, welcome. Thank you for coming. I’m going to start with a simple question: have we always been wasteful creatures?

MH (Martin Hobrland): I would say not by default, but since we started to worship property as such. When we started accumulating property, we started creating waste.

ML: Do you link it to the concept of ownership and belonging? 

MH: Yes. I believe it started with the Agricultural Revolution.

ML: As soon as we had an excess of things and surpluses of materials, we began to produce far more waste and be wasteful with our resources? 

MH: Yes. Of course, at that time there was just a little bit of waste, but I believe it could be called the beginning of our wasteful society.

ML: Your book covers a rather wide historical perspective of our relationship with the waste that we produce. So tell me a bit about that - how has it changed over time?

MH: Well, we produced more and more waste and now, unlike for example in middle-age, we are not really recycling or using the material. We have a much more material wasted. Also, I would say we don't really care much about it.

ML: Do you think that's even the case today? Are we not getting better at all with our care of our environment and how we are dealing with our waste, with new processes of a circular economy, etc.? 

MH: If you take it from the European point of view – yes, we have progress. But, if you take it globally, no.

ML: We're sitting at the moment in Prague, a beautiful city, which smells nicely of spring at the moment. However, in your book you refer to hundreds of years ago, when the king - the emperor would be sitting in his palace complaining about the smell coming from the city. Surely we are getting better, not worse.

MH: Compared to that? Yes. It has also lots to do with the fact that the holy church was actually against hygiene, especially against washing bodies, because that was seen as a sinful act. Also, in the early Middle Age in Europe, there was an absence of the culture like for example in Rome or in Byzantine empire, thus it felt normal for those people to be dirty and then just putting stuff right in front of their house.

ML: So, as a human society, as an integrated number of individuals in a city, nation or world, we've changed some of our habits – for example: how we hygienically look after ourselves, whether we're throwing toilet water out into the street or not…are we just dumping things in front of our houses or are we looking to find places to do that in a more efficient way? Change has occurred, which means that we are capable of it…

MH: We've been forced to change.

ML: Aha, I'd like to talk a bit about your perspective of what motivates that change. In terms of forces that motivate, what can they be? Are they all negative forces or can they be positive forces? What's your knowledge of this over that historical perspective?

MH: Well, I believe that if a main kind is willing to change, they have to hit the ball first. Something has to happen - let's say the plague and the discovery of bacteria, then everything changed - they moved dumps further away from the cities, started washing, started understanding that living in the middle of a dump is not really good for health. Nowadays, some people see the oceans polluted with plastics – regardless where it's coming from, they start to find out different solutions to this problem now. It's not that we have found a solution, but at least we have realized that there is a big problem in a way how we manage plastics. On the other hand, there's nothing wrong with plastic. It's a great invention. We can live cheap, you can buy cheap products, so it's a very important material in many industries. So, plastic itself is innocent, but the problem is how we handle that material.

ML: it's about our management of the ways how we're using this material…

MH: Yes. And about our responsibility.

ML: Do you believe we should take responsibility individually or should we be looking to have structures in there which are going to inform us better? Is it an educational problem? How can we engender a greater degree of responsibility?

MH: Well, we are witnessing that, if you put everything into a law, it doesn't work. I believe there are two things: it's the personal mindset, your personal responsibility - how much you care as a person. And then also the education at the elementary school for the little kids, which, I believe, is now completely missing. Those are the first steps to how to gain a social responsibility to manage our „waste culture“.

ML: Okay, school is one thing. I have young children and social media is taking a bigger and larger role, I think, into the development of their mindset. Would you agree with that? 

MH: Yes. 

ML: You have a past in an advertisement, so you understand this a lot better than I do. Perhaps you could comment a bit about the importance of social media in forming our mindsets into thinking about such matters as waste and our management of waste.

MH: Well, it depends. It's like every media - if someone believes completely to what's written in a newspaper, that’s wrong…you have to have your own filter. I believe that to doubt is a very good thing, if you have information from two or three sources, it’s okay, but to share or like something, which is written in a social media, that's a very shallow thinking, in my opinion. And the little kids especially, they are not able to judge whether it’s a nonsense, lie, or it‘s a true. I believe people, who are really hooked into social media, live in a parallel world created by social media. On the other hand, I believe social media are very powerful in a positive way. If we look at Greta from Sweden, she's being created by social media. It tells us that the social media, if the campaign is managed well - which Greta's campaign was managed very well, actually can create a strong opinion leaders. The quality of the opinion leader as such is a different story, but it shows the great potential of social network.

ML: I get the feeling that, in terms of technology, we're able to act very fast. However, to get the actual will of a society or the mindset in sync to change many millions or billions of units of individuals, that's what takes the time. Would you agree with that? Is that what you're alluding to?

MH: Personally, I'm not convinced that technology is the solution - I think it's just a tool. Now we live in the world which is really fast. If you ordered a pizza ten years ago, it took much longer than it takes now, because you have the companies in food delivery. Everything is fast. If you send a message to someone and this person doesn't reply within three minutes, we are getting nervous or even upset. I think one of this sort of ways of solution is to slow down a little bit and to consider: do I really need that thing that fast or do I really need that thing at all?

ML: We slowed down a lot recently, because of a piece of fragment of DNA wrapped in a protein sheet - the Covid-19 virus. Is that slowing down good? Has that given us the opportunity to reflect? What is your view on this? Has Covid-19 given us an opportunity or took it away?

MH: First of all, it showed us how vulnerable we are as a tribe. At the beginning of this crisis, I've seen many articles, mainly from environmental organizations, saying that we have a great chance to reset and to rethink our impact on the environment and the amount of waste we are producing. However, if you look at all the companies and governments, they are not saying „let's start again“, they are saying „let's get back as before“. So, I don't see any change in mind, it's just let's get back to the economy as we had before. I think it's a pity, because we got a really great lesson from the nature on how powerful it is and we haven't learned anything.

ML: So, are we missing visionary leadership? Do you believe we need to be slowing down a lot more? If you had the opportunity for that leadership position, what would you advise in such sort of general slowdown? Can you give some examples of how we can slow down, but not necessarily harm ourselves?

MH: It would be very difficult, but I’ll try to give a simple answer…Every big company or manufacturer has a plan, and that plan is getting higher every year, because it produces money for shareholders etc. - few people are getting rich, other are maintaining their status, ideally. Is it that difficult to say: „all right, now we have enough money for the next ten years, we are going to have the same salaries the same shareholder profits?”. 

ML: I suppose one would have to ask an economist. As far as I understand it, there are huge forces for growth. If you have a system that we do have, which is based on a strive for growth - which is, as you alluded to, about production. Then, this is what is driving the increase in the standard of living for many. Also, I think, it has lots of positive effects in dragging many people from living in poverty to having a reasonable standard of living. There are arguments to be made there. If then there’s not a problem with waste so much, but a problem with production and that we're producing too much - can we not look to produce more cleverly? Can we not look to design products with a focus, not just an eye, but a focus on it becoming eventually waste and an easing its passage back into the loop of a circular economy?

MH: Exactly. I personally believe that our problem with waste is not at the end of a lifecycle of a product or material, but at the beginning. Recycling is not really a solution. I might be naive, but we really could implement a system or a business platform, which would be already at the stage of designing the product. That will keep in mind what happens after the product is not functional anymore. For instance, electronic products especially or cars, they are full of very valuable materials, which someone can use. I see a platform that if I would be manufacturing televisions, I would make a deal that someone, who will be able to use all the electronic parts of that television for something else. I can sign a contract with some kind of deposit system ideally that would be a circular sort of economy, which is not based on recycling. What the recycling does is that it takes a material, shreds it and then creates another material, ideally of the same quality, right? The truth is that you can't recycle forever. The material gets “tired” and it does not warrant the safety standards, when we speak of plastics for instance. If we changed mindset and try to think about sort of second and third life of material, you will get much more firm, sort of circle system, how to handle our materials. The amount of material we take from our earth is enormous and only a little bit is being recycled or used again. Thus, it's a huge waste. For instance, we are running out of lithium at the same time as we are planning a huge business with electro mobility.

ML: But then what you can argue though about let’s say Tesla manufacturing facility somewhere in a desert in America is that they are attempting to find ways to produce batteries on scale, on budgets and with the resources that we do have. Thus, is there an argument there to have multiple attempts at solving the same problem?

MH: Sorry if I go back to batteries. Are the batteries really such a great invention? It's still the same idea as when they invented it, right? It has not really changed. Capacity is different, the size is different, but it's still a primitive battery. And if you want to build our future on invention which has been made by some Italians many years ago, it's not really visionary, right? We are still using the same idea and we all believe that we just put different components in it and it will be better? No...

ML: Yes, but this is about energy flow. If we innovate in our generation of electricity say farm greener, more environmentally responsible ways, then there's always going to be the problem of what do you do with energy if it's not used immediately. You need a system which holds and stores that energy - batteries fit that gap. Also, the factual technology of a battery, the internal mechanics of it have changed a lot since the Italian Giovanni Volta, that you mentioned. But with that degree of sophistication comes also the use of very rare earth materials that are expensive to mine, are detrimental to the environment, to extract from the earth and could be possibly highly polluting. So, it does seem to be the case that you solve one problem or challenge and then you create a new one. Therefore, your central thesis of that we just producing too much will always resonate, I think. You do use in your book, which is a very good book, and I enjoyed reading it very much, a quotation from Albert Einstein: “We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that we create them with.”. So, it seems to me as you're calling out for really a completely different outlook, a different methodology of thinking about this problem. From your experiences, tell me a bit what could this be? Are there any priority changes that we could do?

MH: I would say the first from my point of view is the way we understand ownership, because with ownership cause everything else - the wealth, the need for production. I would say from my experience there are, for instance, certain categories or commodities, which actually can be within a few years moved into fully sustainable system - let's say a fashion accessories. Now we have billions of brands everywhere that are actually using leather and natural sources. At the same time, for instance in United States there's a company calls for Swords and Plough, which is run by two military ladies and in my opinion it gives a great example of a circular economy. Because what do they do? They use as a material used army stuff - tents, uniforms, whatever army can use. They are hiring war veterans to do the manual work and in the USA are veterans sort of topic, like here. And they hire a great designers - if you look at their products, it's just fantastic. Of course, there's a price tag which, reflects that quality. In my opinion, this is just an example of how a company of the future could function, because you use something - you hire people, which actually have a hard time getting the job elsewhere and you produce a great product.

ML: Does the ownership of that product remain with that company, so that afterwards they are responsible? You've talked about responsibility as well as ownership - those are almost the two different sides at the same coin, I think. We are conditioned to take responsibility for something, which we have some sort of ownership for, whether it is the responsibility to take on your house, your belongings, your family, your nation, or responsibilities of stakeholders. Are those two linked to this business model? For example: if I buy a belt, does that belt belong to me? Do I have an ownership of it or does the producer continue to own it and then, when I give it back, they give me back a new one?

MH: Honestly, for me that would be the next step, because this one example was about the material use, material labor, etc. Of course, the belt will be always yours, but what you just said could be a great thought for the future, actually. We are already used to car leasing. I believe this idea of not owning things and leaving all the responsibilities on a manufacturer could be the way ahead. You will not buy five televisions in a five years, because they are, for example, lousy made. You will buy only two and you pay a monthly fee, like today you pay for Spotify or Netflix. Then, when the TV gets old or broken, you just give it back and you get a new one. In my opinion, this will lead to the fact that fewer TV sets will be needed to be produced, which saves lots of material etc. and at the same time they could be more expensive, because you need to pay for quality. That could be the next step of dealing with the material sources. Then we have the ownership part and the last one could actually be that we will stop wanting everything we think we really need.

ML: So that leads us back to your essential thing about not just ownership or responsibility but also about mindset. Thus, maybe we can finish with these questions, Martin: how did you get all these concepts into your mindset? What drove you to write this book? A brief look at how you began with thinking about these things might be interesting and could help a lot of us.

MH: It all started, when I have learned many years ago about the fact that waste can be separated. Then I saw that many ideas or facts are being misused by marketing or politicians. We live in a sort of world, which is trying to convince us that everything is fine, everything is good and environmental friendly. But if you look from a higher perspective, you will see it’s not true.

ML: Well, on that point we're gonna close the conversation. Thank you very much for your book “7 pádů odpadu” and maybe I would like to give you a little gift in return - a t-shirt to wear. Enjoy the sunshine with us and thank you! 

MH: Thank you very much for inviting me here.
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