Dematerialization: the key to a compassionate economy?

Dematerialization: the key to a compassionate economy?

By Elodie Jacquet

April 17, 2012

Did you ever watch the funky little video called the Story of Stuff? Stuff… It clutters our lives, clutters our garbage bins and creates an infinite array of issues for our environment. But here we are: in a time where creating, selling and buying stuff makes our world go round. Living on a planet with finite resources, will we have to resort to living the lives of the animated characters in Pixar’s Wall-E while our planet crumbles under the weight of all the stuff we create and throw out for the next go-to gadget?

The scale and rate of the human impact leads to more inequity and more environmental issues today than it ever did. But enough of the doom and gloom!

A number of serious think tanks such as The Sustainable Consumption Research and Action Initiative are looking at alternatives for our current economic system, keeping in mind that true sustainability will not be achieved by just switching to cloth bags or recycling our cans and bottles. We need a more systemic approach to achieve sustainability –  a social-technical shift that focuses on efficiency, sufficiency and conservation. In short we need to do less with less!

Municipalities are already struggling with how to deal with our “clutter” and are taking serious steps to dematerialize certain aspects of our urban lives. A good example of dematerialization is the transformation of waste into energy. Countries like Switzerland and Austria have been pioneers in this field. They have achieved remarkable results in transforming their landfills into a source of heat and electricity, clearing up space for growing populations and reducing air pollution. Here in BC, Metro Vancouver has taken the issue seriously and has convened a congress to look at dematerialization in the greater Vancouver area. Here are some of the strategic directions they asked the participants to explore:

  • The role that market forces and technology can play in driving innovation, including the development of alternative products and materials with which to make them.
  • The roles that national and international agencies and institutions can play in setting policies to increase resource productivity: for example, setting the true costs of the things we make, use and dispose of, including environmental impacts, in product pricing.
  • The leadership role that Metro Vancouver can play in developing and implementing strategies such as Zero Waste and international advocacy for cradle-to-cradle manufacturing.

Shanghai Houtan Park

Shanghai’s Houtan Park: “Built on a brownfield of a former industrial site, Houtan Park is a regenerative living landscape on Shanghai’s Huangpu riverfront. The park’s constructed wetland, ecological flood control, reclaimed industrial structures and materials, and urban agriculture are integral components of an overall restorative design strategy to treat polluted river water and recover the degraded waterfront in an aesthetically pleasing way."

When looking at dematerializing, solutions are often as simple as changing materials (do we really need all that packaging around the products we buy?), changing the weight of the materials we use, sharing (car-sharing can be a great way to take cars off the roads) or simply stop using certain materials (plastic shopping bags are being banned in a certain number of communities). However, dematerialization has to go beyond one-stop solutions. It requires a re-engineering of the way we consume and consider our economy.

Our cultural obsession with stuff and clutter is quite recent in the story of humanity.  And as more and more of the world’s population crowds into cities, it will require all of us to learn how to live with less.  So could a new cultural shift come from our cities? Could a dematerialization movement from Austria, Switzerland and Vancouver spread throughout the world?  Or do we stay the course and learn the ways of Wall-E?

(Icon photo courtesy of Pixar/Disney, Shanghai photo courtesy of

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