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Combobulated

“Combobulate. (Verb) To put together in a somewhat mysterious manner. To bring something out of a state of confusion or disarray. To manufacture by some unusual or novel means. Antonym: discombobulate”.

This word has been in my head these last weeks as we have juggled working on gCycle and celebrating my Mum’s 80th with the family in Scotland. I pondered why in popular vernacular we only ever hear of the antonym. A mystery indeed.

It aptly describes our gCycle project. A move to the Circular Economy is multi-faceted, non-linear and requires many parties to come to the table. Some days I’d really rather wish we were in the widget making and selling business but alas we are here working on this wicked problem.

Yesterday we visited Findhorn EcoVillage in the very north of Scotland where my brother, sister and her husband lived for some time. It is the largest intentional community in the world and has the lowest CO2 per capita in Europe as they use 100% renewable everything. The village features some amazing sustainable houses: some round ones made from whiskey barrels (they smell great) others from rammed earth and one that seems to be where Bilbo Baggins lives.

The guide for our tour described the Founders back in the 60’s being guided by higher powers. It was a little like the movie Field of Dreams – “Build it and they will come”. They did build it and the people really did turn up. And they

continue to show up to this day. A perfect combobulation and one that inspires me today to keep going.

On the daily

Am I full?

So we are at a Club Med this week celebrating Mum’s 80th. Club Med was founded in 1950 and is Frencher than a Camembert-smothered Baguette wearing a Beret smoking a Gitanes at a Cafe with all the chairs facing outwards onto the street.

But I digress. These family-oriented holiday destinations are all-inclusive so you pay upfront for everything and then spend the holiday never having to pay for anything.

The food is endless and mostly French (even if you’re in an Italian, Portuguese or Japanese property) which means it’s a festival of empty white carbs.

Because (1) the moment of payment and the experience of the holiday is so far removed from one another and (2) the food and booze are ever-present, there is a misfiring in the brain that suggests “By God, this is all free, I must eat and drink everything in sight, for 7 days straight”. It must have something to do with the reptilian part of the brain that remembers a time when hunting and gathering were a chore so if food is available, we just pin the ears back, strap on the feed bag and go.

The layout also conspires against human nature. As you walk in to dinner there are mountains of cheeses on the left and desserts on the right. Every day there is a cacophony in the head with Will Power saying “don’t do it” while Holidaying Me says “screw it, you only live once”.

It reminds me of the famous soup experiment that revealed just how bad we are at knowing when we are full. We have no idea when enough is enough. Which is beguiling as our fellow French holiday-makers are impossibly thin. I think that goes back to the Gitanes.

On the daily

Where are the plastic-free deniers?

Could it be true? Is there no one coming out to deny the “so-called” plastic “crisis” that the Left have been hyperventilating about this year since their enviro demi-God David Attenborough came out and said there might be a bit of plastic lying about the place and we may want to do something about it?

It’s odd isn’t it? For all our sophistication as a species it seems that if you can’t see it you won’t believe it. Birds entrapped in plastic? Yep, that’s a fact and plastics are a problem. Sea temperatures rising, CO2 levels soaring? Well, it might not be true. It’s science after all and well, that’s rarely accurate. Sprinkle in a conspiracy theory or two and off we go. Years of wasted time debating scientific fact over a minority’s Oil-industry funded opinion. Meanwhile Rome burns and Elon goes in search of a new planet to call home.

Earth Day, the movement started in 1970 effectively died in the 2008 Great Recession (the one Australia missed because it’s banks are actually regulated) because the majority realised they were only up for saving the planet if they could afford it. And in 2008 they couldn’t afford to keep their homes, let alone buy organic.

I sensed it would take decades for people to start caring again but the plastic crisis has proved me wrong. There seems to be a genuine shift with Government and manufacturers at least in some countries making a move.

One concern however is the notion that we just keep churning out plastic and magically recycle it. Global recycling rates are woeful, China is no longer taking the world’s recycled material, the end products are of lesser value and the biggest issue is that plastic is made from oil. Once it’s extracted from the ground and extruded, the upstream damage is done. Somewhat like our climate denying funders from Big Oil, I can only imagine the machinations going on in the background to make absolutely sure the demand for oil is in no way affected by any new policy.

Will the day come when we can bid farewell to Big Tobacco, Big Sugar and Big Oil and their tried and true tactics to keep the public confused and maximise profits for shareholders? It’s so predictable yet we all seem to be asleep to it. In all three cases they are literally killing their customers.

For our US cousins, not even today’s resignation of scandal-ridden Scott Pruitt, Head of the EPA and card carrying member of the Climate Deniers club offers any reprieve. The new Head, albeit interim was also a lobbyist for Big Oil.

Rome continues to burn.

On the daily

Being in the minority

As a white, English-speaking male, being in the minority is a sadly rare experience.

Alas here we are at a Club Med in Portugal to celebrate my Mum’s 80th. A once in a lifetime event. After massacring the Portuguese language at Lisbon airport in the days prior to arriving at Club Med, we are now essentially in a French enclave, in Portugal. It’s “Bonjour” every morning and “Bon Soir” every night.

Out of 200 odd guests we 11 are the only English speakers here. The high school French is in tatters and we are mostly relying on Kim’s Québécois French.

And it’s fabulous. Listening to all these European languages that I have no clue about makes me realise how lucky native English speakers are. It also reminds me of our own arrogance when we expect the world to speak English. And the need to revise my busted French the next time we head to these parts.

On the daily

The trouble with banning plastic straws and everything else

On holiday with the extended family – brothers, sisters, cousins all together to celebrate the Matriarch’s 80th birthday and the conversation turns to straws with my brother who works in hospitality in the UK.

His hotel is making the switch to paper straws and have immediately run into two issues: (1) The paper ones are 4x the price and (2) in some drinks they disintegrate: a failure of price and performance.

This will likely be repeated as we work our way down the list of plastic goods to be banned. Price is certainly an issue in our category as we prepare to launch gCycle in the UK. There is nothing in the world as cheap and effective as plastic. Over 70 years we have refined and perfected the art of extracting oil, extruding plastic and making everything we can think of out of plastic. It’s really the McDonalds of a material. In small amounts as originally intended, all good but today like the fast food / obesity epidemic plastic is killing us.

So what is the answer in a world where we all want cheap, convenient and now sustainable?

The combination of China banning the importation of recyclables along with very low recycling rates globally, I do not believe recycling is the answer. It’s missing the surge of the problem, the material we use to make products in the first place. And most recycling is really down-cycling: an ever-decreasing value of the products being made from recycling.

I think the answer is to bring into the world new materials that are designed with the end in mind. These are materials used in products that follow Cradle to Cradle principles.

By definition, these materials are more expensive than plastic and will remain so until mass adoption is achieved. To bridge the gap between here and there, I see Government subsidies as a key piece of the puzzle. I see no other way to accelerate to a Circular Economy away from the current Linear one.

With the price issue resolved, there will be more viable businesses able to test and tweak new materials to make products that match the performance of their plastic alternatives.

Banning plastic products alone will not see the change we seek. We need a little pricing support too to kick things off.

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Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes…

One thing from last week’s Ellen MacArthur Summit that is sticking in my mind is the notion that while change is the only thing we can count on, there seems to be an unprecedented acceleration in the rate of change.

At the Summit, Blockchain was described as the next internet – a piece of technology that will fundamentally change all that we do. Today we see a fledgling crypto-currency and early legal transactions on the chain but little else. Apparently there’s much more to come.

In the face of such change there are two responses. Lean in and embrace it or run the other way.

Brexit and Trump were described as a firm example of the latter. The theory goes that the once very privileged and powerful part of society: white men, now getting older voted to step back in time. Protectionism, isolationism, anything but the Status Quo.

For the US, a multi-bankrupted, twice divorced, philandering racist is better than the direction the US was heading in. As former Speaker of the House John Boehner noted, this isn’t the Republican Party, this is the Trump Party.

During my stay in the UK last week, reading about preparations for Brexit in the press was beyond painful. Some companies are set to relocate to the EU, while others like Renault are utterly confused about what the future holds for their UK operations.

Flying into Lisbon yesterday reminded me of the practical dimension of Brexit. All those UK passport holders will soon be shepherded through the slow, laborious “Foreigner” lane just as they did 30 years ago. 30 years ago!

One wonders if the damage caused is permanent and how long it will take for these two countries to rejoin the world after their giant leaps backwards.