Sunday, April 15, 2012

Resource availability: a view from the bottom


Finding inventive new ways to use today's consumer throwaways can be as challenging as it is rewarding.
Photo from www.facebook.com/Recycled.Upcycled


This week I have been thinking about big ocean-going ships. Yes, it's 100 years to the day since the Titanic experienced a black swan moment and had an unexpected early decommissioning after an encounter with an iceberg. As everyone knows, right up to the moment before it happened people said it was unsinkable, and the band famously continued playing even as she went down. But the Titanic wasn't the particular ship I was thinking about, instead my interest had been piqued by comments made by an analyst at vesselsvalue.com (an organistaion which values VLCCs or Very Large Crude Carriers i.e. supertankers). The analyst, whose name appropriately enough is Adrian Ekonomakis, told the Daily Telegraph that falling levels of sea borne world trade combined with rising steel prices is drastically reducing the working lifespan of the average container ship.

Not to put too fine a point on it; container ships are worth little more than their scrap value.

China and other booming economies are hoovering up the world's metals and, in the economic scenario we are currently in – in which a considerable portion of the world's cargo vessels are moored in a kind of nautical graveyard off the coast of Singapore as these amazing pictures show – the laws of supply and demand are just doing their thing. Ships which would once have been expected to ply the world's trade routes for a quarter of a century or more are now only expected to last for only 15 years. Since those pictures of the ghost fleet were taken in 2009 the average amount a VLCC is worth in scrap has climbed from USD 12 million to around USD 20 million.

Is this what the move to salvage industrialism looks like? It's hard to think otherwise. The declining ability of the supply of scarce commodities to meet demand is resulting in the economic system to embark on a process of self-cannibalisation. In most instances, such as the sale of vehicles for scrap, the process is legitimate, but the most dynamic element of the economy, i.e. criminality, is leveraging these new high commodity prices against the cost of guarding them against theft. The result is soaring levels of metal theft. In the UK alone metal theft is the fastest growing crime, costing the economy an estimated £770 million in 2011, and what's more, it is a crime that affects everyone.

Copper, long valued for its conductivity and pliability, is being stripped out of rail signalling junctions, with obvious safety ramifications, while lead is being pilfered from church roofs across the country, leading to water damage and a huge clean up bill. Metal sculptures are being stolen at an increasing rate, and thieves who have been caught have admitted to using Google Earth to case out possible joints. Even the dead can't escape the scourge of metal thefts, with copper plates on tomb stones becoming the latest target for unscrupulous thieves.

As I sit here writing this at the kitchen table I can glance up and see huge cargo ships floating serenely across a small patch of the Baltic framed by a taxi rank headquarters and a kindergarten. I live on the edge of the narrow strait between Denmark and Sweden called the Øresund (i.e. 'ear sound' so called because sound made on one side can supposedly be heard on the other). It's a pretty busy trade route with dozens of container vessels moving through it each day bringing trade to and from Russia and the East. As I sit here and watch them it's entirely imaginable that those great floating hulks will one day have been melted down and turned into the skeletal supports for some Chinese skyscraper or other. It's a further leap of imagination to imagine then that the vast amount of steel used in skyscrapers, will one day be subjected to the same sort of fate and recycled into some more eminently usable form, such as pots and pans or bicyle frames.

As a card-carrying non-cornucopian I can only agree with those who suggest we may be entering the salvage stage of industrialism. It appears unlikely, to say the least, that materials scientists will simply conjure up some new kind of material that can replace metals overnight - as neoclassical economic theory says they should. But neither will a move to a salvage economy be a nice straight linear progression from abundance to scarcity – some regions will proceed at a greater pace than others – although the overall trend over the coming decades will be one which leads to a point where recycling won't just be something for those keen to show their green credentials. Instead it will become a matter of survival as resource accessibility becomes ever more difficult.

I have come to think recently that individual nations' future ability to access useful stuff, such as metals, is being decided at this present moment. Generally speaking, the more 'junk' left lying around for future remodelling, the better. At present, most of our useful junk ends up in China – after all they have to fill those empty container ships with something after they have disgorged their loads of cheap sportswear, flat-screen TVs and iGadgets on our shores. Perhaps it is a kind of sly revenge for the opium wars but China seems to have us in the West stitched up good and proper right now. Not only do they feed our addiction for cheap consumer goods (some of them made using factories they purchased lock stock and barrel from the US and shipped over to China), but they also are getting us into ever deeper debt bondage to them and, just to rub it in, taking back the useful materials after we have 'consumed' them.

Denmark, where I live at the moment, has an aversion to mess and clutter. People's houses are minimalist, with every wall painted white, and the countryside is green and pleasant and, some would say, sterile. This attitude is applied to waste as well, with virtually everything combustible being incinerated and the metals being shipped off somewhere out of sight. I have written before about my morbid distaste for the amount of discarded stuff here in Europe's most wasteful country (it was what inspired me to start this blog) although I have done quite well out of it personally as my entire flat is furnished with thrown away furniture and other 'trash' (although if you came here you'd probably think it was all new and from Ikea – and you'd be right!) My particular stand out horror moment was watching municipal workers feed several hundred perfectly good bicycles into a crusher last year – the bikes had been rounded up and condemned for being 'untidy'.

This is all in stark contrast to Spain, where I used to live. There, people have the opposite attititude to items which have passed their usefulness stage. One of the things I enjoyed about living there in fact was visiting desguaces - or scrap yards – in which thousands of smashed up cars are piled up on top of one another, sometimes in quite an alarming manner. Here's you could find pretty much anything you were looking for if you needed to replace a part on your own car, and sometimes you were even allowed to remove it yourself. This was not for the faint-hearted however given that most of the cars had suffered head on collisions – and Spaniards' love of speed and overtaking on blind bends ensured that there was always a steady supply of new wrecks to pick over.

My final year living in Spain saw me living in a farm house in somewhat reduced circumstances. I worked as a labourer on a building site to earn cash, but that was at the start of the great recesssion in 2008 and building work was becoming more and more patchy. It was then that together with a few builder friends we decided to become salvage workers ourselves (or 'scavengers' to others). We drove down to the coastal city of Motril and cruised the industrial estates in a van, looking for likely materials. We weren't disappointed. Pretty soon we had dozens of pallets, sawn off pieces of construction metal and various other bits and pieces which were destined for land fill. One of my friends even salvaged a goat which was wandering around a factory carpark looking lost.

We then drove out to some of the vast construction projects which were very much in full swing back then but for which Spain is now paying the price. Road straightening programmes, in which dozens of new bridges were constructed across narrow valleys to make previously windy roads straighter and therefore more amenable to the large trucks which thundered nothwards with their loads of salad items destined for northern European supermarkets, were veritable treasure troves of materials. The workers on these projects tended to dispose of all the building detritus by simply flinging it down into the valleys. At each site we could thus scavenge large amounts of high quality construction steel, decent lengths of wood and other sundry materials. With some of this stuff we built a large chicken run, paying only for the chicken mesh. My friend made a round dining table out of a wooden cable drum, sanding the wood to a lovely finish and applying various oils (notably linseed) and polishing it to the point where it looked like a piece of designer furniture.

Combined with large rocks dragged out of river beds, dead olive tree wood (which was everywhere) and only a small amount of cement and plaster, we found we could construct almost everything. Necessity really does become the mother of invention and, after I had left Spain to take a job in Denmark, my friends carried on living at the farm house and building things out of stuff that was simply lying around and therefore free. 

So the lesson I took away from that episode was that, on an individual level, moving into a salvage situation can be a creative, engaging and ultimately liberating experience. Given the astonishing amount of waste that is produced these days, anyone who can refashion or remodel old items into something useful and new will be at a distict advantage. The possibilities are practically endless and I once stayed in a village in Laos where the people had put to great use the bomb casings which had been so liberally sprinkled over them during the Vietnam War. Some had been used in the construction of buildings, others had been cut in half lengthways and used as water troughs for cattle and yet more had been painted in bright colours and were being used as flower pots.

Luckily, we don't have to use bomb casings, and to end on a positive note for a change I'd like to direct everyone to this site (sorry, it's only on Facebook) which shows you how we can take today's junk and refashion it into inspiring and useful items. A few of my favourites are below.

Looking for a use for the old Barbie play house? Chickens aren't too fussy about where they roost.

A nice idea for what to do with that old mountain bike and the even older mover you found in Grandpa's shed 

Old pallets magically transformed into bookshelves

A great use for an old gas cylinder. You should probably check it is actually empty before digging into it with the angle grinder ...

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