I spent yesterday morning at the always-excellent North East Recycling Forum annual conference. The conference chair, the ever-ebullient Mark Shayler of APE, challenged us in the second half of the session to think up both 'standard' and 'outrageously ambitious' ideas on, in our table's case, how to apply technology to waste.

My two outrageously ambitious solutions were:

  • A small scale pelletiser/3D printer so you could, say, create your own Christmas decorations from plastic packaging, or turn yesterday's faddish kids' tat (e.g. loom bands) into today's (fidget spinners), all in your kitchen;
  • An Alexa-style smart bin which would not only advise you on what can be recycled and/or how, but could count what materials you put in so you can 'earn as you recycle' rather than 'pay as you throw' - incentivising good behaviour rather than penalising bad.

I was really quite pleased with those, but the more I thought about them, the less outrageously ambitious they seemed. Yes, costs would preclude the latter for a long time, but it could be implemented in a neighbourhood recycling centre?

But the bigger thing is, well, thinking big. When Interface announced their Mission Zero Sustainability target (zero impact on the environment by 2020) in 1996, it seemed bat-s**t-crazy, but now they're almost there, and zero waste, zero carbon or 100% renewable electricity targets are being adopted by business left, right and centre. Yesterday's ambition is today's meh.

The old cliché is that Sustainability should be like the moon programme – 'no-one ever got to the moon by aiming half way', but that's slightly misleading representation of that programme; the reality is more interesting. It was Apollo 11 that made it to the moon, the previous 10 missions ranged from tragic failure on the launchpad (Apollo 1, where the three astronauts perished) through to flying the lunar module down to 15km above the moon's surface (Apollo 10) before turning back. So while a lunar landing was the ultimate goal, there were plenty of intermediate steps to master on the way.

In the same way, we need to set those stretch targets but appreciate there's quite a journey to get there. But that headline outrageously ambitious goal drives you on. As someone else said at NERF yesterday, "if you're not pushing at the boundaries of what's possible, what's the point?"

 

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