Preparing for the London Situation!

I am preparing for London, and the first “situation”; I'll arrive a few days before the workshop begins, in order to meet participants and be sure that we have everything ready. At Furtherfield, Ale is busy getting everything ready for the workshop (19-22nd) and the performance on the 23rd, and in Augsburg Martin is slaving over a smoking keyboard, putting the finishing touches on audio-video streaming in UpStage.

The chosen situation in London is e-waste, and we will be working with a local organisation called Bright Sparks, artist Tom Keene, and about 14 participants (locals and from each of the project partners). I've had a couple of Skype conversations with Tom, and one with Tom and Diye Wariebi who is the manager at Bright Sparks. Established as a “re-use and repair shop”, Bright Sparks aims to tackle the problem of e-waste through providing its community with easy and affordable ways to repair and recycle old electrical appliances – keeping them out of the landfill for a bit longer and helping those on limited budget. They also provide training and volunteering opportunities to contribute towards countering unemployment. So far, the project seems to be a big success.

However, Bright Sparks is now facing a challenging situation: its funders require the organisation to be more financially independent and make their activities pay for themselves. But how can they turn a profit from repairing then selling secondhand appliances, when new (poor quality) appliances are available for less than the cost of repairs? This is at the root of the e-waste problem – cheaply-made new electrical appliances are for sale at below-value prices, achieved through vast economies of scale, that it's impossible to compete financially with recycled appliances. To become financially self-sufficient, Bright Sparks would have to move away from its core activity of repairing and recycling electrical equipment – the whole reason it was set up in the first place.
It's difficult to change the mindset of the population; why should someone spend £10 on a recycled, secondhand electric kettle when they can buy a brand-new one for £5? If you don't have much cash-flow, £5 now for a kettle you'll probably have to replace in a couple of years seems like a better deal than £10 for one which will last ten or more years. This short-term mentality and the belief that a bargain is always better has been thoroughly brainwashed into us by advertising designed to keep us consuming, so that the companies can keep making a profit from us.

It's important also to look at the bigger picture of what organisations like Bright Sparks are doing: they're not only facilitating effective recycling, they also provide training and education, and crucial awareness-raising about environmental issues at a very basic and personal level. All of this has significant non-monetary value for society and is worthy of funding.

So our “situation” in London may refine itself from the broader issue of e-waste to the specific situation Bright Sparks now finds themselves in, and how to tackle this mentality that social service organisations should be financially self-sustaining and that a bargain is worth any environmental cost. Of course, the workshop participants may bring other ideas and stories to the process and the focus could go a different way. We will have an initial meeting on Saturday to get to know each other and to start to explore the issues.

My suitcase is starting to fill as I think of things, and I've already popped in Prosperity Without Growth by Tim Jackson – a very readably analysis of the fundamental flaws in a growth-driven economy. I also have Digital Rubbish: A natural history of electronics by Jennifer Gabrys – but only a digital version (perhaps appropriately) and I haven't got very far with reading it, unfortunately, as – call me old-fashioned – I do prefer to read hard copy books. It looks quite academic but very relevant to our broad theme of e-waste.

I am looking forward to an inspirational week in London; let the Situations begin!