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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For 18 years, Miriam Kashia worked as a psychotherapist in private practice. She also has a long history of doing social justice volunteer work. In 2005, Miriam departed Iowa for Namibia, where she served two years in the Peace Corps. While in Namibia, she was a community health worker with orphans and vulnerable children in a rural area.
Throughout her adult life, Miriam’s major passion has been various adventures in wilderness and the out-of-doors. She’s been on numerous canoe trips into the Boundary Waters Wilderness Canoe Area of Northern Minnesota, including a recent solo trip. (It’s rare to see women in the BWCA and rarer still to see anyone alone.) She’s been on RAGBRAI (Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa), camped and backpacked in many wilderness areas, and kayaked in the ocean. Her lake cabin along the backwaters of the Mississippi River affords her the opportunity to kayak and canoe in the Mark Twain National Wildlife Area.
Though invested in the political process, outdoor adventures, and causes for social justice, Miriam recognizes that saving our planet is the most important work to be done. Unless we reverse the tide of global climate change, all other concerns are moot points.
Miriam recently took on another volunteer position as Blue Planet Green Living‘s international editor. She is also a contributing writer, when she has time between her extensive volunteer and work activities.
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January 12, 2009 by Julia Wasson
Filed under Blog, Cooking, Desertification, Drought, Fossil Fuels, Front Page, Health, Iowa, Litter, Namibia, Peace Corps, Population, Solar, Sustainability, Water, Youth Programs
Seated across from me is a gentle, silver-haired woman. She speaks in soft tones, gesturing slightly from time to time. Her manner is warm and welcoming. You could easily call her mild-mannered. But don’t let her appearance fool you. Miriam Kashia is a force to be reckoned with when there’s a job to be done. And that’s just the spirit with which she tackled her recent Peace Corps assignment in Namibia, home to some of the world’s most impoverished people.
Joe and I have been friends with Miriam Kashia for a few years. We had heard something of the difficult decisions she wrestled with while weighing a two-year commitment as a Peace Corps volunteer against a full, active life in our community and a thriving psychotherapy private practice. In November of 2005, she accepted the opportunity to make a difference in the larger world and embarked on a two-year adventure that many people nearly a third her age find arduous and challenging.
Kashia returned to the United States a year ago, in January 2008. She’s had time to reflect on her experience, and to see from a distance the effects of the work she did half a world away. I interviewed her in her Iowa City home. What follows is Part 1 of a two-part interview. — Julia Wasson, Publisher
BPGL: Describe your Peace Corps assignment.
KASHIA: I was assigned to Namibia, which is on the west coast of Africa just above the country of South Africa. It’s been a democratic country since 1990, when it gained its independence from South Africa following a 30-year war. As a point of interest, Namibia is the only country in the world that has environmental protection written into its constitution.
My job there was to work in a small community of about 6,000 people, counting the surrounding settlements and farms in the countryside. I was called a health worker, which could look many different ways. For me, it meant I was assigned to an organization called CAFO, the Church Alliance For Orphans, under the Namibian Council of Churches. Because Namibia has an HIV infection rate of 22 percent of the population, there are a lot of orphans and vulnerable children in the country, so that was my primary assignment. It was very challenging, as the Peace Corps almost always is.
BPGL: In what ways did your work relate to the environment?
KASHIA: As in most places, there are a lot of environmental issues. In Namibia, the issues mostly tend to have to do with water. I lived on the edge of the Kalahari Desert, in the south of Namibia. They used to have wildlife roaming free there — giraffes, elephants, and lions, etc. They’re long gone, partly because they were hunted, and partly because it’s too dry for them there now. The country’s becoming increasingly drier, and there’s a lot of drought.
The water tables are falling, so even though the water in Namibia is probably just about the best in Africa — it was safe to drink in almost the whole country — it’s becoming more scarce. So, drought is an increasing environmental problem.
Something that contributes to the drought is a process called desertification, which is an expanding problem in Namibia. Desertification is caused sometimes by natural causes, such as less rainfall, and by global warming. It’s being exacerbated by the practice of African people cooking over open fires and cutting all the brush and trees in order to have fuel. Not only does this create a big problem with (mostly) women having to go further and further out into the veldt (savanna or desert) in order to find something to burn for cooking, but it depletes what few plants there are, and it increases the desertification problem. That results in less and less water. It’s a problem that is increasing exponentially as we speak.
BPGL: What other environmental problems did you see?
KASHIA: Litter is a terrible problem in Namibia, as I believe it is in most African countries.There’s just not much consciousness about that. It’s a visual problem, but it’s also a health problem. Everything gets dumped anywhere. Especially around the towns, there are just thousands and thousands of wrappers, packaging, broken glass, and plastic bags. If a goat eats a plastic bag, it will probably die, because the bag plugs up its digestive system. Since a lot of people’s livelihood depends on raising goats, that’s an economic problem as well. Litter looks dirty and is dirty, so that’s a health problem, which also affects tourism.
BPGL: Do the Namibians not care how it looks? Are they not aware of it?
KASHIA: My own understanding is that the development in African countries, and probably elsewhere in the world, happened very rapidly. They went from no packaging to all this modern packaging in a generation or two. They don’t have the resources for adequate garbage pickup or adequate garbage cans. Nor do they have the mentality that you don’t throw things on the ground. So, one of the projects that I undertook there was a litter cleanup project. But, in truth, it was like removing water from the ocean with a thimble, to try to and make a dent in that.
BPGL: Did you change any minds about litter?
KASHIA: Yes, I did. And that brings me to another topic, a secondary project, which is optional for Peace Corps volunteers. We’re invited, if we see a need, and it corresponds with something within us — an interest or a passion — to create a project of our own.
So I started a club for learners, which is what students are called in Namibia, an environmental club. We called it the CLEAN Club, which is an acronym for Club for Learners on the Environment, AIDS, and Nature. Every fourth week, we focused on HIV/AIDS prevention and education. And the rest of the time, we did environmental projects and environmental education.
BPGL: How many students participated?
KASHIA: It was made up of between 25 and 35 high school kids. They joined because they wanted to be in it, and they attended very regularly, which is pretty much a huge success story. I had very little in the way of support for running this club, because I was doing it on my own. So, I had to be there every week, and I had to do all the preparation. I didn’t have access to email.
There were no environmental resources to speak of in the schools or the library, so I sort of had to work from what I knew in my head. But I think the kids learned quite a bit about environmental issues, such as population, water use, and alternative energy. I also called in local people, such as a science teacher, who talked about the water table and desertification. And I invited a businessman who had a private business setting up windmills and solar energy on some of the larger farms. They came in and talked to the kids.
BPGL: What was the response of the students?
KASHIA: I tried to make it fun, and they were very interested. They’d never been exposed to this information. Keep in mind, Namibia is a country twice the size of California, with a population smaller than Iowa. Population as a problem doesn’t resonate with them. So when I talked about the world being overpopulated and that being a problem — one of the core problems behind environmental degradation — that was news to them.
BPGL: What activities did the CLEAN Club do?
KASHIA: I took them on two environmental trips, which were funded entirely by my friends and family here in the U.S. That was quite wonderful for the kids. It’s very expensive to travel, and I had to hire a bus to do it. We went to NaDEET, which stands for the Namib Desert Environmental Education Trust. It was started by an American woman about seven or eight years ago for the sole purpose of educating young people in Namibia about the environment and environmental concerns.
NaDEET is an amazing camp. It’s entirely off the grid. The kids learned about preserving water and did all the cooking with solar ovens and stoves. They had a lot of creative projects and interesting forays into the desert, including a night scorpion hunt! The kids loved it and learned a great deal. I also loved it and learned a lot. I wish we had camps like that for kids here. The whole thing was run on a sustainability model, with a focus on learning about Nature so we can protect it.
The other trip I took the kids on was to the Fish River Canyon in southern Namibia. It’s the second-largest canyon in the world after the Grand Canyon. We arranged to stay at a fancy tourist lodge there, which graciously and generously housed and fed 23 kids, myself, and one other adult. They loaned us their tourist guide to take us around. He taught the kids about the canyon, about the environment, and about plants and animals in the vicinity, which was just great. Most of the learners in the CLEAN Club had never been more than a few kilometers away from our small community of Karasburg. So, these trips were an enormous experience for them.
The CLEAN club also did some litter cleanup projects in our community, which I mentioned, so I know their consciousness got raised. And I know they started talking to other people about it. It was gratifying.
BPGL: What role, if any, does the Peace Corps take in protecting the environment of Namibia?
KASHIA: Most of the Peace Corps volunteers in my group of 60 were teachers. they had the option of including environmental and AIDS awareness in their curriculum. The group after mine, who came a year later, in 2006, were all given solar stoves by the Peace Corps to take to their sites all over the country. These were to be used personally, as well as to demonstrate and teach people how to use them. So that’s a very positive effort which can help reduce desertification. They bought the stoves from a company in Namibia that makes them and gave them to the Peace Corps volunteers.
We made a solar oven at NaDEET, when we did small-group projects. We divided into small groups to do projects. We used cardboard boxes, newspaper, a piece of glass, tape, and black paint. We put the boxes one inside the other, with newspaper in between for insulation. We painted it black, then got a piece of glass, like window glass, to put on for a lid. Put some meat and rice in it, put it in the sun for a couple of hours, and you have dinner!
The problem with getting people to change their technology in terms of fuel and cooking resources is that it tastes different. They’re used to cooking in one of the classic African, three-legged pots over an open fire. Food tastes different when you cook it in a solar oven. People have to get used to the idea that then they don’t have to spend two or three hours every day going far afield and cutting brush to burn. Maybe when they have a chance to observe it over a period of time, they will get the message.
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