After meeting (on video) with a new member of my supervisory team last week, I started thinking about a possible parallel of waste and the kind of novelty offered by ride-sharing platforms. These relatively new alternatives can in some cases be seen as more efficient than public transport - that is, if you don’t take into account the externalities and the long-term effects of precarity over the workforce. Even from a critical perspective though, there may be important lessons to learn. Particularly if we want to build cooperative platforms instead of VC-backed and greed-based ones, but still want to address what citizens need. The common configuration of those platforms is taking on tasks that the public sector is not able to perform because it is not flexible enough. These tasks are by omission outsourced to large corporations that offer in the immediate future a populist service (better for users, unstable for workers, unsustainable in any future that differs from one of full automation and replacement of labour with machines). The public sector could be intelligent and responsible and create fair ways to delegate those tasks to private entities, in a mesh of profit-oriented, nonprofit and community based services. In other words, not discarding the ‘shared economy’ altogether, but transforming it into a true shared economy. That does not happen often, but there are people trying to build those alternatives.
Expanding on that scenario, can the discussion about regulating ride-sharing platforms (and adding cooperative and community entities into the mix) be transposed to waste management? There is an analogy, after all - a great deal of waste management is related to last mile logistics, just as well as with ride-sharing apps. Could then waste management be configured as a mesh of organisations in hybrid forms that are aware of the potential value of waste, and for that reason are able to provide the proper collection and best destination for materials, but based in the idea of public good instead of profit for shareholders?
Waste collection relies on trust. Trust on what will be done with materials. A citizen must trust that a piece of cardboard put into the paper recycling bin will really be recycled, instead of ending up in a landfill. Another level of trust implied lies on how much data we give away with our waste, and what could that reveal about ourselves. Imagine a scenario in which each bin by each apartment block can be tracked, and where the materials are analysed by an artificial intelligence. It’s only half paranoid to extrapolate that context to one in which whoever has access to information about the composition of a building’s waste can infer a lot about the social group that generates it. Of course that depends on where AI is deployed - at the point of collection or further down the line. But only to exercise a bit: sorting through a household’s history of packaging can tell much about their members’ habits of entertainment, nutrition, health and even sex. Put that to service of hidden interests of influencing consumption or elections, and a dark picture emerges. I can think of a future research study in which I would ask citizens how they felt in different situations: one in which the collection, sorting and handling of waste and recyclables are performed by human workers against one in which machines take care of it all, and going further another in which instead of calling them machines I use the term "data-driven artificial intelligence programmed by someone you don't know". I would expect to get different reactions to each.
In the same conversation with my new supervisor, I was reminded of - and felt like sharing with her - another of my personal memories. By the end of 2002, myself and other members of then recently created MetaReciclagem project started collaborating with a nonprofit in São Paulo that got donations of diverse types of goods - furniture, clothing, tools - and delivered them to community initiatives. We were there to help with electronics, and things started evolving quickly. We spent most Saturdays there as volunteers, and eventually got involved with other parts of the operation. One of those days I was shown a collection of books and magazines. They had come from a recently deceased advertising art director, and featured amazing volumes on art and design, as well as imported comic books that were very hard to acquire in Brazil. I was amazed and spent a couple hours skimming through the collection. Next week it was gone. I asked the guys at the nonprofit what happened, and this guy said “I sold all to recycling”. Not only had all that beauty and knowledge disappeared from the face of the earth, but the nonprofit made perhaps as little money as only one of those books would have been worth in the right hands. Again, potential value. How to use it against socio-economic inequality?
Apart from the direct implications of corona to my activity as a researcher, I can also imagine deep effects in the very field I am studying. The spectre of contamination will condition the culture of material solidarity for a long time. Charity shops in the UK, the habit of putting furniture and large objects out in the streets of Barcelona, the Ressourceries in France. Now that each object touched by others is a potential vector for contamination, people will probably be wary of being exposed. The very idea of community repair events may be under threat - the Restart community is already discussing it. Professional repair people - when they are allowed to get back to work -, hobbyists, and people who need their objects repaired or transformed - everyone will need to decide how much to trust one another. There are many ties of solidarity that were already challenged beforehand, weakened by a culture of superficial consumption and throwing things away. Is solidarity even more at risk, will it rot and disappear when people are not allowed to touch even indirectly?
It’s of course curious, as any product in a charity shop is arguably as likely to have been exposed to the virus as anything in a large supermarket also handled by third parties. But a second-hand objects seems to carry the traces of other individuals in a more explicit way, whilst in the supermarket the very awareness of the object being manipulated by someone is fuzzier. I myself feel acutely more aware of other people touching things that enter my household. Every parcel I get now feels almost like a radioactive object. People are developing all sorts of mini-quarantine and disinfection routines for their groceries. That may get more extreme when it comes to second-hand and repairs.
On the other hand, the expected economic downturn will likely require people to make the most of their limited means. Not only millions of people will lose their wages as the economic activity grinds to a halt, but the very capacity to manufacture goods is seriously challenged as factories are in lockdown (and likely any other labour intensive sectors such as coal mining, for instance). That will likely pressure the common citizen to acquire the skills to repair and maintain their things as best as possible. Necessity is the mother of invention, precarity is the mother of gambiarra. I’ll mention Cory Doctorow once again, as his recently released Unauthorized bread is a timely tale about repairing and hacking products that were, if I may appropriate and amplify a term used elsewhere, defective by design. Doctorow obviously does not take into account how much the imminent contagious nature of neighbours’ homes would impact the condo hackers leaded by Salima, and their willingness to help the community. But I can imagine that the gang would just need to create extra disinfection measures alongside the other safety precautions they already adopted in terms of privacy and covering their tracks. What sort of protocols, supplies and equipment can we apply to second-hand and repairables to reduce the contamination with the corona virus (and by extension the next pandemic viruses we’ll face in the future)?