31 August 2011

The Wanderings of the WEEE Man

People around the United Kingdom have been in for a big surprise. A seven meter three tonne metal man has been wandering in their midst. Who (or what) is he and why is he here? Is the Earth about to stand still? Hardly, but like Klaatu he brings a message to which we should really listen!

Asking people to think about waste is sometimes difficult – you might even say it can be a waste of time. People do not like to be preached at. So how on earth do you make a European Union Directive interesting enough to grab people’s attention? Through art? Well, it’s worth a shot! A mysterious seven meter creature was born.

So here is the result – WEEE man! On average a citizen of the United Kingdom will produce 3.3 tonnes of waste in their lifetime. At the same time that sounds like an enormous amount but, considering our lifestyles in the West it does seem rather small at the same time. This is only, in reality, a fraction of the waste that one person creates. In fact, it only represents the electrical waste that will be produced by an individual in their lifetime. The WEEE man weighs in at this exact weight – and as such offers a direct insight in to the enormity of the problem.

What is he made of? Firstly, large household appliances, such as washing machines and television sets make up a large part of his structure. Then there are smaller objects, such as toaster, irons, and other electrical tools. There is lighting equipment and automatic dispensers, IT and telecoms equipment and toys and leisure items, all making up this latter-day Frankenstein’s monster of Brobdingnagian proportions. This guy is big! Waste is no longer out of sight, out of mind. The hope is that his birth will make people think about their behavior when it comes to disposing of the electrical equipment they no longer want.

People still do not consider recycling sufficiently. To draw attention to this the British Royal Society of Arts started to think – and think big. Hugh Knowles Mark Fremantle, both Fellows of the RSA developed the idea in tandem with Giraffe Innovation. The result was WEEE man – seven meters tall and, yes, over three tones in weight. He is a scary looking guy – hardly the ‘wee’ man you might imagine if you were told you were to be introduced to him at the bar after work! Wee, of course, is Scottish slang for someone of diminutive stature – and this wonderful play on words is integral to the impact of this work of art.

At the risk of sounding like a cosmetic ad, here’s the science (or at least the boring bit – the reason why WEEE man was created in the first instance. WEEE actually stands for the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive (WEEE) which became European Law way back in 2003. Its aim was to set targets for the collection, recovery and (mais bien sur!) the recycling of any and all types of electrical equipment.

The law recognizes that it is not the sole responsibility of the buyer to dispose of their electrical equipment once it has become redundant. Rather it is the equal responsibility of the manufacturer to ensure that their customers can return their WEEE with ease – and for nothing. Additionally, the organizations mist use the collected materials in a way that is ecologically friendly – which means no more selling off the used goods to poorer nations to bury a few meters below the ground and ruin the water table for the local inhabitants.

So, the WEEE man was considered a good way to draw attention to this. After all, out of all the European Union Member States only little Cyprus managed to meet the deadline to place this Directive in to their own national law. The UK (and its usual tagalong play mate Malta) were the only two member states not to transpose a framework of the regulations at the very least in to their national law. Step forward the Royal Society of Arts with a reminder of the governmental responsibilities – and we are not talking a post-it note on the PC monitor here, either!

Once the point had been made, at the South Bank in the heart of London, WEEE man now finds a home at the marvelous Eden Project in Cornwall. There he remains (but will be on tour soon), a colossal reminder of the waste that we produce and a nudge to our consciences that we must do something about it. How he has managed to encourage discussion around our throw-away consumer society could never properly be quantified. However, something this big gets noticed and hopefully this WEEE man has made people think about their choices when it comes to the disposal and recycling of our waste.