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Waste not, want... more: Will the circular economy ever work?

Manufacturers once resisted modernising their wasteful methods, but rising prices for raw materials may soon force that change

Ellen E. Jones
Saturday 26 July 2014 20:57 BST
Key to change: The urge for new technology leads to us throwing away millions of tons of usable hardware
Key to change: The urge for new technology leads to us throwing away millions of tons of usable hardware (Getty)

Does anyone want my old TV? It's a Sony with a 32-inch screen, in full working order. There's nothing wrong with it except that we've been given a newer, flashier one.

Sooner or later it will probably end up as landfill, along with the 500,000 tons of household gadgets the UK gets through every year. Oversized laptops, iPhones with smashed screens and toasters with broken buttons; the whole anthropomorphised cast of a Pixar movie is sitting unloved on a landfill site somewhere in the UK.

According to a report released this week by the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC), the UK's once improving rates of recycling are plateauing. MPs warn that industry must move away from the old linear model of "take-make-dispose" and towards what they call "the circular economy".

If this sounds like the old goal of sustainability recycled anew, it is. Only this time, the economic argument is almost as persuasive as the environmental one. Manufacturers once resisted modernising their wasteful methods, but rising prices for raw materials may soon force that change. That's the stick. The carrot is recycling technology much swisher than a Sainsbury's bag for life. Incredible self-mending circuitry means fewer of those minor faults which once condemned gadgets to the rubbish heap. When they do occur, "modular" technology will allow us to replace the faulty component, without chucking the rest.

There are signs that built-in obsolescence has already fallen out of fashion. The most trumpeted innovation of the iPhone 6, is a screen made of durable sapphire crystal. Could this "unbreakable" phone be the last you own? Probably not. As consumers we've long since passed the point when an item would have to be broken before we'd decide we "needed" a new one.

There is a flaw in the circuitry of the new circular economy, but it's not mechanical. Humans have been conditioned by a century of sophisticated advertising to live in a state of permanently unsated desire. We are so used to relentlessly replacing old with new, that "recycle chic" is in danger of becoming just another consumer trend; in one week and out the next.

Not everyone is the type to camp outside the Apple Store overnight, of course, but everyone has some kind of irrational desire to buy. And since possessing the goods we desire never fully satisfies, we are left always wanting and always wasting.

This week, for instance, my online shopping cursor is hovering over a first edition of the Swedish-language children's classic Comet in Moominland, and I must have it. That's the one where Zen-like wanderer Snufkin offers this tip to consumerism's victims: "Everything gets so difficult if you want to own things. You have to carry them around and watch over them. I just look at them – and then, when I continue on my way, I can remember them in my head. I prefer that to dragging a suitcase."

Teachers choose their pets

What makes a great teacher? A new TES survey of teachers' own favourite fictional teachers provides some insight. Mavericks who stray off-syllabus are apparently favoured, as Miss Jean Brodie, Robin Williams's character from Dead Poets Society, and Jack Black's from School of Rock all appear in the top 20. Also, beards matter. That's judging by the hairy chin on Harry Potter's Professor Dumbledore, in at No 1.

If the list only included these crowd-pleasers and showboaters, there'd be cause to despair of our teachers. As I recall from school, only the staffroom saddos would invest much time in trying to appear cool or likable to their students. Those who did always gave off that whiff of insecurity, which is particularly pungent to a teenage nose.

Let your eye slide further down the TES list, however, and you'll note some more unexpected entries. Sarcastic wit, as exhibited by Mr Gilbert in The Inbetweeners and Sue Sylvester in Glee, is highly prized. Simon from Teachers, Elizabeth from Bad Teacher and Alfie from Bad Education also make the list and all are most notable for turning up to class hungover. We can only assume that some teachers filled in this survey the morning after Michael Gove's demotion.

Oh, for that 'muffliato' spell...

This week Daniel Radcliffe celebrated his 25th birthday, which is weird because as everyone knows, Daniel Radcliffe is only 10. Still, like all precocious pre-teens, the Harry Potter star is determined to assert his maturity. In this month's Elle he rounds off a too-much-information tour de force by informing his interviewer that he's "had a lot of better sex" since losing his virginity. Please, Daniel. We're still trying to erase from our retinas the image of your naked buttocks left by Equus, and that was seven years ago.

Good manners a-Hoy!

More understanding, please, for the security guard who failed to recognise Sir Chris Hoy at the Commonwealth Games. She's been ridiculed for demanding ID before letting Hoy enter the... er... Chris Hoy Velodrome. However, I interviewed Sir Chris before the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and I can confirm that his face is not what sticks in your mind.

The six-time gold medallist later tweeted "She was just doing her job!!", which demonstrates the second most memorable thing about him: his good manners. What is the first most memorable thing about Sir Chris Hoy? His 27in-circumference cyclist's thighs. To see these in the flesh is like witnessing 10 boa constrictors hugging two tree-trunks, or two nuclear torpedoes primed for blast-off.

Both his monster thighs and his manners deserve credit for making Sir Chris the sporting VIP he is today, but we can't blame the security guard for failing to recognise these attributes, can we? Neither is immediately discernible at eye-level.

Bottoms up

Speaking of high-achieving body parts, I'm beginning to suspect "Rear of the Year" is not an entirely serious sporting event. The competition began in 1981 (winner: Felicity Kendal), but its integrity was thrown into doubt this week when Carol Vorderman was awarded the coveted title for a second year. Was Nicki Minaj shortlisted? It's a fix, and the Government must investigate judging panel corruption as an urgent priority. A contest which once enhanced British culture with the considered comparison of celebrity backsides is in danger of becoming a joke.

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