Sharing things to help the planet

In Business and Environment, Environment, Ethical and Eco Agriculture, Friends and Community by Martin OliverLeave a Comment

Among the consequences of today’s rampant consumerism are climate change, over-use of resources, and waste. Bold initiatives are needed, especially those that challenge existing paradigms and up-end outdated assumptions.

Traditionally, accessing an item would usually involve purchasing it, even if it is likely that you’d only use it rarely. Over the past few years, a new idea has taken root, involving grassroots community libraries that lend to local residents. These social enterprises, known as Libraries of Things (sometimes also described as Share Shops or Libraries of Stuff), are popping up in numerous places, both overseas and in Australia. They belong to the community-focused end of the sharing economy, a place where access trumps ownership.

The benefits

A culture of individualism and the aversion to common stewardship displays the ‘buy what you need’ arrangement. One alternative is to borrow the item from a friend; while some quarters readily accept this strategy, others frown on it as freeloading.

For lower income earners, the ‘buy what you need’ model is a financial burden. It also carries a significant and unnecessary environmental impact. The world is waking up to the realisation that there are no longer unlimited resources to keep exploiting in a business-as-usual fashion. Product lifespans are shortening, landfills are filling up, and packaging has become harder to recycle.

One widely-quoted statistic is that the average power tool is used for 13 minutes during its entire life. Similarly, most households have a range of items that they are very rarely use, these gather dust for the rest of the time. If every household has one of everything, then this multiplication of stuff creates the potential for clutter, and makes little sense.

Younger people have different ideas

They are less attached to owning stuff, and are open to alternative models. Often choosing small apartment living, they tend to prefer less furnished living situations. Some high-profile extreme ‘minimalists’ eschew stuff ownership on principle, and seek to own as little as humanly possible.

Living spaces are becoming smaller, and tiny houses continue to arouse a lot of interest. Here, storage is in very short supply, and many tiny house dwellers feel obliged to adopt an extreme policy of discarding one item for each one brought in. It is impossible to store a full range of useful household items in such a limited space.

For all of these considerations, Libraries of Things represent a solution. They complement existing public libraries, tool libraries, and toy libraries, offering a  diverse range of items that can be cheaply accessed. Unlike commercial hire facilities offering items such as suits, and carpet cleaning machines, Libraries of Things are extremely good value.

In Australia and overseas

One of the first to be established was Leila in Berlin, in 2014. Short for Leihladen (borrowing shop), it works on an informal basis, where becoming a member involves dropping off an item to complement the shop’s inventory. In the same year, a second Leila branch was opened in Vienna, with a more conventional business model where members pay a joining fee.

Inspired by Leila was the Library of Things that opened, also in 2014, in the London suburb of Upper Norwood. As with Leila, it began life following a crowdfunding campaign supported by hundreds of local residents. Its ambitions involve plans to open nine other libraries in London by 2021.

Sometimes, a Library of Things is an offshoot of a traditional book-lending library, as is often the case around the US. In Canada, the Toronto Tool Library has started up a more ambitious project known as the Sharing Depot.

Existing facilities in Australia include the Share Shop at Hamilton North in Newcastle, and the similarly-named Share Shed in the Brisbane suburb of Salisbury. One is being set up in Townsville, and another is underway in Mullumbimby. This Mullumbimby project already lends out reusable bamboo plates and stainless steel cutlery for events, in order to minimise takeaway packaging.

Get involved

If this sounds inspiring, then track down and join your nearest Library of Things. If none exists, consider getting the ball rolling by setting one up. Here are some tips.

  • Use social media to track down interested people who are prepared to help as volunteers.
  • Support from your local council is useful, but not essential. It may be in the form of publicity, or subsidised premises.
  • Crowdfunding is ideal for initial seed funding. If the project is already running and scales up, then grants are a more realistic source of finance.
  • Many Libraries of Things have a business model involving an annual membership plus a modest payment for each item borrowed.
  • Decisions regarding the stuff to be offered usually involves soliciting feedback from future local members. Suggestions include items that are used occasionally, such as kitchen mixers, hiking backpacks, board games, saws, ice skates, and party supplies. Good choices are items that are repairable and easy to clean.
  • Some libraries opt to buy items new. This allows them to select for durability and ease of repair. They come with warranties, and it is recommended to keep a set of spare parts in reserve.

Why didn’t we think of it before?

In addition to their core function, Libraries of Things may double up as community-oriented spaces, repair centres, or hands-on ‘makerspaces’ characterised by creativity and learning.

One byproduct of Libraries of Things is that local participants feel more connected to their locality. A physical shop usually has more community ‘glue’ than a decentralised network of local residents lending out personal possessions within the sharing economy. Such a ‘peer-to-peer’ business model for non-specialist hire has been difficult to support in Australia. A company called Open Shed shut down last year, while another named Rentzi is still active, albeit with very few listings.

Since it started, the Upper Norwood Library of Things has received more than three hundred requests from around the world, for advice about how to set one up. As these facilities move beyond the trial-and-error stage, accumulated experience is showing what is working. This in turn enables the model to be honed down for the benefit of new entrants. 

Judging from the level of enthusiasm that Libraries of Things have aroused, they appear to be an idea whose time has come. As some people are saying when they hear about it, “Why didn’t we think of this before?”


The Share Shop (Newcastle)

Share Shed (Brisbane)

About the author

Martin Oliver

Martin Oliver is based in Lismore, and writes on a range of environmental, health and social issues. He takes the view that sustainability is about personal involvement, whether this involves making our lives greener, lobbying for change at a political level, or setting up local eco-initiatives.

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