Reuse, reduce, recycle - we’ve all heard this phrase, and I’m guessing we all try to apply it within our own lives. Recycling yoghurt pots and reusing coffee cups is second nature to most of us these days. But reducing can be harder. And recycling some of the larger items in our lives is something many of us may never have considered.
I’ve been happily recycling away for years and feeling pretty pleased with myself for doing so. But there is (at least!) one person in my life who puts me to shame in this area - my fella, Arif. He buys almost nothing new and never has. From clothes to laptops to kitchen units, the vast majority of the stuff my beloved buys is reused or recycled in some way or another, which has inspired me to go second hand more often. So, in honour of WBCA’s reduce and reuse month, I thought I’d interview him about his shopping habits and share his wisdom with our blog readers. Here's the conversation we had...
Johanna: Please explain your philosophy on buying new things
Arif: “It isn’t a philosophy on buying things so much as a bid to stop fueling the collective need for new things to be produced. I love buying stuff and believe that buying (second-hand) and selling things is intrinsic to creating fewer new things.
“Broadly, we don’t need the vast majority of the new things we’re producing. If you choose to acquire something, you will ask yourself how much you need that thing and where you’ll get it. But what we don’t tend to do is consider the true costs of owning things. Everything has a cost, whether that be carbon, human or otherwise.
Photo by Ravin Rau on Unsplash
“If we stop demanding new things to be made, fewer new things will be made by the people who are responding to market forces. Buying and selling is the quickest way to show the market that we don’t need new stuff - in the same way that more people becoming vegan has meant that there’s now more vegan food on offer.”
Johanna: Can you give me some examples of things which other people would buy new that you would always try to buy second hand instead?
Arif: “Everything! It’s easier to think of something I don’t see in that way. In an ideal situation, there’s nothing we should need to buy new. If we had decent right to repair, certain things could be bought new, but then the old ones would be dismantled properly. The only things to buy new are things that are only safe when they’re new – like scaffold boards, which are condemned after a certain amount of time. Though they do tend to be reused (to make shelves and so on) here in Bristol."
“Think about, for example, a plug socket – there’s no way someone’s going to rewire our house and not replace the plug sockets. But why? It’s a good example – it probably will be there 20 years before it’s replaced, which is good, but
it’s still a piece of plastic and metal. And it’s still
functional. I’m not an electrian – if they say it’s dangerous, that’s different, but this is an example. There’s a bias of saying we’ve used a certain item for 15 years so it’s fine to throw it in landfill."
Photo by Sven Brandsma on Unsplash
Johanna: What about cables? Could you buy them second hand? You buy a lot of those new! (I like to joke that every time a parcel arrives in this house, it’s a cable for Arif. I’m terribly funny, but probably quite unfair, as at least 50% of the time, it’s a book for me. The rest of the time, definitely cables.)
Arif: “Unfortunately, we’re in a situation where – firstly, there’s an obsolescence and an economy of scale which we quickly use as an excuse. We start to drift into a meta economic paradigm of thinking, well, this thing that’s worth 90p – would I spend £5 of my time fixing it? Now you remember, when we went to Sri Lanka, the price of a human hour was such that you would just repair things. Cables are a tiny version of that. It comes down to local economics. No cables get thrown away in Turkey [where Arif’s family are from], and I guarantee you that they don’t get thrown away in Sri Lanka either. There’ll be a guy in a shop fixing electronics – cables are worth a pound, which is a percentage of a day’s wages. Everything changes depending on the local economics.
“The only solution is to make things expensive, as we should be doing with meat. We need to know the true transparent cost of items through educated eyes. Cables are a great example. Once we’re fixing £1 cables and making that socioeconomically viable, all a sudden it’s like eureka! That would be great.”
Johanna: If buying a second hand thing is more expensive than the new version, how does that play into it?
Arif: “When you learn about business and marketing, you learn about the difference between price, cost and value. Unfortunately, most people don’t understand the difference. Everyone has to make their own decisions, but the main thing to do is get the data to enable people to make the right choices. And to remember that all costs effect other people. A cheap new telly has a carbon cost, it won’t last long, it’ll go in landfill, some horrible stuff is going to leak out of it and if you were to look at a chart of all the costs – you realise you’re polluting the planet, that the person who made it isn’t paid enough and so on."
Photo by Ales Krivec on Unsplash
“The iPhone mentality has us playing each other off against each other idea, feeling attached to ownership of stuff – but it’s worse to buy a cheap TV every year rather than a good one every 10 years.”
Johanna: It’s interesting that you mention phones. We’re all conditioned to think we need a new one every two years. How do you deal with that?
Arif: “I’m an early adopter of tech, I like having a fast phone. The interesting thing about phones is that they are very small – there’s a coefficient of usage versus cost. It’s small and you use it all day. That’s better than – for example – something bigger and more aspirational that you don’t use much every day. I bought my phone new a year ago – I tried to buy one second hand, but this model wasn’t around. I could have bought the model before, but I probably would have been done with it by now. The production cost is relatively low. But the whole right to repair thing needs to have correlative model with operating systems. We need a broader level of adoption for things that can still be used. Then we wouldn’t even need to recycle the device because there are people all over the world who would use them if the OS just worked still."
Johanna: The problem is, though, that there are so many phones in the world that they are having a big impact. (See our previous blog on this topic.)
Arif: “Google are working on a phone where you can update the elements – like a Fairphone, but better. It has a motherboard, sound card and speaker – you can upgrade them. It’s all about open source and cross platform. I blame the consumer a lot less for phones than for other stuff. There are fewer options."
Photo by HalGatewood.com on Unsplash
Johanna: I considered getting a Fairphone but had heard bad reports and in the end, I couldn’t deal with the daily stress of a rubbish phone. But I did buy a second hand handset, which I’m just as happy with, thanks to your influence. So, next question; where do you shop for second-hand items?
Arif: “Facebook Marketplace, mostly. It's easy to use and has a wild west element that I really like. People are rude to you, or you’ll meet someone really nice, or someone will come and offer you a tenner for a thing that you put up for £50. I like that, I think it’s fun – I like throwing myself on the human pile and seeing what happens!
“I use EBay for specifics. Or if I’ve bought something from a person, if I’m at a yard buying a van wheel from someone, I will often ask what else they have. People who sell stuff sell lots of other stuff too.”
Johanna: What’s the best find you’ve ever had?
Arif: “Now you’re asking! The slimline dishwasher which cost £20 and is still going – that’s a good example of something which would have gone to the tip otherwise. That was really good.
“When I knew I was buying a house, I bought a hob off a kitchen fitter who had a steady stream of leftover kitchen units and fillings and so on. He would ring me and ask if I wanted things. I got an oven from him as well, which I think I sold. He had a new Bosch fridge freezer, two years old, a person had ripped out the whole kitchen because they didn’t like the colour, so it was going to the tip. That really bugs me – there’s nothing you can do about that. But it meant I got a fridge freezer for free. Anything really big with a lot of metal in it is a real win."
Photo by Obi Onyeador on Unsplash
Johanna: That’s a really good example of what other people would never consider buying second hand.
Arif: “Kitchen, bathroom suites, taps, things like that. Front doors. It becomes harder for people when they need skills to adapt the thing. There’s a set of skills that you need to make this work. But do some research, contact a tradesperson, find a person who will implement this for you… try to have a real human conversation with them. Maybe someone should start a business buying and fitting used kitchens. If people ring their kitchen fitter and ask them to fit a second-hand kitchen for you, maybe they will do it.”
Johanna: What is the best tip you can give someone who wants to try buying second hand from now on?
Arif: “Start by looking for it second hand, then buy new if you have to. That’s the big paradigm shift, which is analogous with reducitarianism. The real shift is not thinking I’m a meat eater who eats veggie once a week, but instead, we eat vegan and I treat myself to meat now and then. If you need a new pair of trainers – do you go to the shop, or do you decide what colour you want and look on eBay? If 80% of us can do that 80% of the time, that will be really helpful. Make that your starting point.
“Secondly, consider that it can be enjoyable to hunt for these things. You just teach yourself to do this if you have the energy. Talk to others – I like to think that in most groups of friends, there’s a me. You know them as the tight arse! Ask them where to find the things you need, as they will know. It’s a learn by doing thing.
“It’s also about how you dispose of things. If you know something is going to landfill, think about the implications of that. Leave something outside your front door with a post-it on it. This is a great way of getting rid of stuff which people often do in Bristol.”
Arif runs Hartwyn Natural Building with his business partner Joe, so sustainability is part of his life every day.