ReUse Connection – Ideas for Repurposing, Freely Shared
Ian Moise is the founder of ReUse Connection, a Facebook page and future website dedicated to finding alternative uses for items or materials people might otherwise throw away. For example, do you ever wonder what to do with used plastic tape dispensers? ReUse Connection readers suggested ideas as varied as making candle holders, using them to organize loose pieces of ribbon or embroidery floss, pulling the metal cutters off and gluing them onto a piece of wood to create a knife, using the rolls to store rubber bands, and, of course, recycling them.
By day, Moise [mo-EEZ] is an international development consultant for the World Bank’s Water and Sanitation Project (WSP). A returned Peace Corps volunteer, his interest in consumerism and reuse got its start while considering the question of what makes people happy. This is part two of Blue Planet Green Living’s (BPGL) two-part interview with Moise. — Julia Wasson, Publisher
BPGL: What sparked your interest in reuse?
MOISE: I had studied a lot in college about community-based cultures, and I was already concerned about consumerism in the United States. I very much wanted to find out how it was to live in a community-based society, why they bought stuff or didn’t buy stuff, why they were less individual consumers than we were, and so on.
I contacted the Peace Corps, and, because I had lived for a winter in France and already spoke French, I ended up going to francophone Africa. It was a good fit. The Peace Corps is obviously a great experience. You learn tons of things about yourself, about other people, and about your own people.
In Africa, I saw kids running around in scraps of clothes, and people living very difficult lives, yet they were frequently smiling, even at the end of a ridiculously tough day. It didn’t make sense. It got me interested in this question: Why are poor people happy?
BPGL: Children tend to be happy no matter what their economic circumstances. Did you also observe that the adults were joyful?
MOISE: What I saw frequently is women who would toil all day. They would wake up very early in the morning before the light of dawn. To take care of their families, they would start a fire, put water on the fire to make breakfast and so their families could bathe, etc. Then, about the time the sun would come up, they’d pack up their stuff and go out into the fields with two or three or four of their kids, maybe a baby on the back, maybe a baby on the front. They’d end up out in the fields all day under the hot sun, toiling and tilling, usually in groups of women — four or five, maybe more, maybe less.
At the end of a 12-hour day, they’d stumble back home. They’d have these wicker baskets strapped to their backs (like backpacks) that they’d made from reeds or other materials. They would stack wood easily two to three feet above their heads; you can imagine the weight of a stack of firewood. And remember they often had a baby on their front. They’d walk by my house each evening, and turn and wave and smile and keep going. That just shocked me; people didn’t do that where I was from.
This whole dynamic of why wealth didn’t buy happiness was really intriguing to me. What made those women smile at me under such physical demands?
And, I began to think about the meaning of the word poor. What is poor? I have always been struck by our definitions of poor: the West being financially wealthy, but poor in humanity in many ways; impoverished people being poor in finances, but always willing to lend a hand. These are gross generalizations, but they played a BIG role in all this life stuff I’ve done.
BPGL: What did you do after your stint in Peace Corps?
MOISE: After Peace Corps, I went to grad school in an interdisciplinary, environmental studies program at the University of Oregon. My research compared the United States and Zambia. I looked at sustainability outcomes as a function of how people allocate their resources. My hypothesis was, If you spent more money on your friends and family than on yourself, in very gross terms, you would be happier. Conversely, if you spent it all on yourself, you’d be less happy.
I looked at two things: environmental sustainability, using an ecological footprint engine as my measuring stick, and social sustainability, using proxy indicators for happiness and feelings of security.
BPGL: What were your conclusions?
MOISE: What I found — and I think this has been borne out by current research — was that up to a certain level of wealth, money does buy you happiness.
If you can’t take care of your child’s education or clothing needs, or if you’re unhealthy, or if you’re constantly spending all your money, and you’re on a treadmill of living on the edge, then, yes, increases in wealth actually do correlate with happiness. That was particularly true in Zambia, but I think it actually worked as well in the United States.
But, after you reach a certain level of wealth, it no longer correlates with your happiness.
In the United States, it was very clear that the more time people spent with each other, the happier they were. Older people who volunteered more of their time and people who were in community groups or went to church tended to be happier. I think that’s an interesting dynamic. By the way, this is a huge field of research now, much of it stemming from Robert Putnam’s book called Bowling Alone — about the alienation in today’s industrialized world.
BPGL: Were you aware of the consumer-driven society when you were growing up, or did you not become aware until your Peace Corps experience?
MOISE: When I was in college, I kind of got off the consumer kick. I told my parents I didn’t want gifts anymore. I was down on Christmas and birthdays. I didn’t understand why these events were all about getting presents?
It just seemed wrong to me, especially when you think about the back end of the life cycle of these products. Where do they go? It isn’t just in the garbage can. They end up somewhere. Not to mention that Christmas was supposed to be a religious holiday.
In the early 1990s, I was influenced by a book by Paul Hawken called Ecology of Commerce. It started percolating ideas of industrial ecology in my head. Industrial ecology makes the ultimate sense to me: Output here, input there; let’s marry those two things. So, that book stimulated my thinking for a long time.
BPGL: How did you come up with the idea for your website, ReUse Connection?
MOISE: In Africa, I found a lot of utilitarianism. In retrospect, Africans are not utilitarian because they want to be or because they’re environmentally conscious. It’s out of necessity and poverty.
In fact, I see this confusion a lot in the sector. A lot of environmentalists want people and the world to change because of morality, because it is “right.” The problem is, morality doesn’t catalyze change.
I think making and saving money mobilizes people. This is why our site is very much about entrepreneurship. I think that people and industries and businesses are starting to reuse not because it is “right,” but because they are now seeing the value in it… But, I digress…
The idea for the website comes from wanting to connect that utilitarianism with the consumerism and waste of the developed world, and everywhere in between. I’ve traveled all over Europe and Africa, and I’ve seen all these different ideas on how to reuse things, which ultimately reduces waste. It was just natural to me to try to connect those things. My brain is a little bit of a connector.
When I left USAID in mid-2008, I thought that I was going to change tracks and get work in the environmental field, doing what I got my masters in. I ended up unemployed for about eight months. During that time, I delved back into the environmental sector and ended up reading a book called Green to Gold.
Green to Gold was basically about how to create competitive advantage by becoming more green, and why businesses are getting into sustainability. There was an example in that book about disposable cameras made by Fuji and others. An upstart group had said, We’re going to take the disposable cameras and put film in them again and resell them. I thought that was awesome!
Something just clicked there, and I suddenly had the idea. I started chatting it up with my father, who is a software developer. That’s how it started.
BPGL: What is the business model for your website?
MOISE: By early 2009, I had designed the whole website on paper for some business plan competitions I was entering, and my dad was working on the software development.
During development of the business plan, people told me I couldn’t build a viable business model on advertising revenue alone, so I said, Okay, we’re going to do three things. We’re going to build a knowledge-sharing platform first. Then we’re going to build a challenge engine, which is going to get businesses to buy into the concept that instead of paying their own engineers to solve their redesign challenges, they can post challenges on our website, and our community will help solve them. And, finally, we were going to connect businesses with byproducts with businesses that need them as inputs.
BPGL: I saw a video you created for a contest on Myoo Create. You posed a hypothetical question about what a factory could do with paint sludge, then explained how Subaru is already reusing it. Is that the kind of thing you have in mind as a challenge?
MOISE: Exactly. Subaru, in that case, could have partnered with us. We could have posted that challenge (What do I do with paint sludge?), and then someone on the website could have come up what the solution to dry it and use it to make plastic products, and Subaru would have paid them some sum, maybe $20,000 or $50,000.
BPGL: So you’d be conducting contests where people can be rewarded for finding a solution to an engineering problem.
MOISE: Yes. There’s an increasing interest in this type of crowd-sourcing (using an internet community to collectively solve problems), and a number of companies are already doing it.
BPGL: Are you still working on all three parts of the business?
MOISE: As it turns out, in January of 2010, I decided to learn how to use social media to build our community — part one of our plan. And, immediately, I found two companies doing parts 2 and 3 of our plan, which was fabulous. Let me tell you, just developing the first part is way more than I ever imagined. There’s a million ways to go with it.
BPGL: Who are those companies?
MOISE: The company that is doing the second part, which is the challenge engine, is called MyooCreate. I connected with them through Twitter.
One of their first challenges/competitions was called Beat Waste. They encouraged us to enter, and it was a natural competition for us. But more than the Beat Waste competition, what interested me with them was how synergistic their model was with us. If they were building a challenge engine, and we had the user community to solve challenges, it would be a natural partnership.
BPGL: Are there sites that broker industrial waste? Or are you hoping that folks who work at companies where there’s a lot of industrial waste will just ask what ideas you have?
MOISE: That’s exactly what we want to do with the third part of our business. As I said, though, there is a company, Recycle Match in Houston, Texas — that is already doing this. We haven’t had a chance to collaborate with them yet, though.
And actually, when I first entered those business competitions, all the judges told me I couldn’t mix our knowledge sharing and challenge idea (consumer businesses) with this B2B business. They just didn’t accept it as viable.
In my mind, though, people use computers, not businesses. If our community is large enough, then the same people who work for businesses will see it as a resource. Look at how Facebook connected people first, and now they are getting into business services. Again, as I see it, two people sit at computers and make deals — not two businesses.
BPGL: What’s your launch date?
MOISE: June of 2009. [He laughs.] It’s a slow process, but hopefully, by November. I’ve pushed that date back a number of times. It is just me and my ideas and my dad and his software development skills. My sister has helped some and my brother-in-law is helping more and more (he also does software development).
BPGL: Will there be a fee to participate on your site?
MOISE: No. We are not an exchange site; we are a knowledge-sharing platform. Someone can come and ask, “What can I do with packaging?” Then someone else can say, “You can make a piece of art; you can make a dress; you can send them to the Goodwill.”
There are a lot of organizations, like Freecycle, CraigsList, tons of municipality websites, etc., that already offer opportunities for people to exchange things. So it’s a natural union between us and any of these sites.
People can come to ReUse Connection and find out what they can do with rubber gloves, for example. Then, if they need the rubber gloves, or washers, or something else, we can tell them which sites or locations, in their area, that they can find them.
BPGL: How does Reuse Connection tie into your research on happiness?
MOISE: In my view, there is a relationship between our interactions with others and our interactions with the material world.
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