11 Questions With Transition St Andrews

A representative of Reuse St Andrews, Akshika Kandage, interviewed Transitions project officer Sam Woolhead to discuss a wide array of environmental-related topics including climate change, e-waste, behavioural change as well as some advice budding environmentalists etc. The interview was conducted virtually over MS Teams.


Transition St Andrews has a strong focus on tackling climate change. As such, would you mind telling us how e-waste contributes to this problem (the climate problem)?

“Transition is a community based environmental organisation in St Andrews and we deal with tackling climate change and working towards a low-carbon community. If effective polices and organisations are not put in place, then the proper recycling of e-waste does not occur .When e-waste is burned, the gases released result in the greenhouse effect, causing an increase in global warming, and negatively affecting climate change. As we steer into the technological age and away from  paper-based reliance, the issues of not having adequate e-waste recycling measures will continue to magnify. Also, Planned Obsolescence in the Electronic industry -which is when electronic products are designed to die out after a short period of time – is a major issue because that’s what causes a massive load of e-waste in the first place.”

Do you think that the e-waste and climate crisis share similarities in the way that they should be managed/engaged with?

“The similarity revolves around the idea of improving collective resilience within local communities and employing a mentality of Recycle, Reuse and Repair and supporting a lower carbon footprint lifestyle. What this means is that people need to employ more of a DIY mentality so they do not have to support and demand goods from companies that are a major part of the pollution problem, like some electronic goods companies. It also means people become more careful about the way they use their products- be it food or anything really because waste is a huge environmental issue in terms of pollution, littering and even climate change.”

Should there be a priority list when it comes to solving environmental issues such as managing e-waste, solving the climate crisis, promoting sustainable fashion?

“The electronic industry is becoming a hegemonic /dominating force in our society. Our dependency on electronic materials has increased and will continue to, so solutions to e-waste along with awareness does need to be both prioritised and promoted. But in terms of prioritising, there does need to be a recognition of which actions or issues will have bigger impacts but overall, there is no way for use to reach a sustainable or resilient future or a fair, just and inclusive one unless we address all issues.”

FOR OUR ACTIONS TO CHANGE AND TO TRULY HAVE A GREAT IMPACT, WE NEED TO RECOGNIZE THAT OUR NORMATIVELY CONVENIENT LIFESTYLES COME AT A HUGE ENVIRONMENTAL COST AND WE NEED TO MAKE A COMPLETE CHANGE ABOUT WHAT IT IS WE CONSIDER A CONVENIENT, HAPPY LIFE.

Do you think we have normalized the notion of destroying the planet as grounds to ensure an extra convenient lifestyle?  

“Most of our ‘destructive’ actions come from a lack of recognition or awareness for the negative impacts we contribute to. For example, there is an environmental group called project drawdown spearheaded by Paul Hogan (an environmentalist/author) and the project does collaborative research on the top solutions for reducing global warming and tackling climate change. In one of their research projects, they found out that the number one solution to climate change was tackling the issue of refrigerants (refrigerant is a substance or mixture, usually a fluid, used in a heat pump and refrigeration cycle) because they contribute the highest greenhouse gas pollution.

In a very direct way then, we see how something we all use – a refrigerator is highly problematic and how more recognition and research and educational changes will be a useful approach to combating the eco-ignorance that feeds our destructive behaviour. For our actions to change and to truly have a great impact, we need to recognize that our normatively convenient lifestyles come at a huge environmental cost and we need to make a complete change about what it is we consider a convenient, happy life.”

 Is there any country that is pursuing adequate regulation when it comes to environmental issues?

“Well, many countries are heading in the right direction, but it is important to remember that environmental change is ultimately determined by individuals and their behaviours and practices so that is where the change needs to start. But a few examples I know of in response to the question -1) Scotland and the creation of the climate change fund -where they set aside some money for funding community initiatives around climate change. 2) Costa Rica is another example of a country that actually invests more in their social and environmental policies and initiatives than their own military. 3) Bhutan has written into their Constitution that 2/3rd of the country at any one point should be covered in trees and they are one of the only democratic countries that value gross national happiness over gross domestic product (GDP).

We also have great examples like New Zealand who have so many environmental and social protections policies in place and Sweden, who in terms of waste management has implemented really positive policies with entire supermarkets focused on second-hand reclaimed and recycled products and no virgin materials (virgin material refers to previously unused raw materials) are used in that shopping centre at all. So, there are all these countries pursuing amazing initiatives but overall, such initiatives need to become more widespread as well as sustained and the way to do that is focusing on individuals who will push for, continue, and make the necessary environmental changes within the circular economy.”

How do we change the mentality of people who undermine the legitimacy of environmental urgency claims?

“The whole purpose of Transition as an organisation is to create a community (of students, residents really anyone within a local community) to partake in climate resilience through hosting loads of fun activities and workshops on how to recycle, reuse or repair things. I think if we are able to educate people, especially children from a young age, to employ environmentally friendly practices and behaviour and emphasize the damage and consequences they contribute then this might be able to change people’s mentality and convert it into an eco-friendlier one.”

I DO THINK THAT ANY BEHAVIOURAL CHANGE PROGRAMMES OR PRACTICES NEED TO INCLUDE THE WEALTHY, ESPECIALLY SINCE MOST OF THE TIME, LOWER INCOME EARNERS HAVE A LOWER CARBON FOOTPRINT AND ARE JUST SCRAPING BY. IT IS JUST INSANE THAT THERE ARE JUST SO MANY PEOPLE BEARING THE BRUNT OF THE BURDENS BROUGHT BY SO FEW.

Is e-waste an issue that needs to be addressed more by higher income earners, who have a higher stake in e-waste management because they are likely to possess and hence dispose of electronics more frequently than low-income earners are able to?

“Over the last couple of years, it has become evident that there is no way to ignore the links between climate and social justice. We also see a humongous rise in the number of billionaires in the world which means a large amount of money is concentrated amongst fewer people who are basically structuring the world for everyone else to live in, which is rather undemocratic. And so, I do think that any behavioural change programmes or practices need to include the wealthy, especially since most of the time, lower income earners have a lower carbon footprint and are just scraping by. It is just insane that there are just so many people bearing the brunt of the burdens brought by so few.”

What is Transition currently doing with regards to e-waste management in St Andrews?

“I coordinate the StandReuse which is a project focused on collecting people’s second-hand belongings from kitchenware, clothes, stationary, to random household items and electronics and distributing them to thousands of people in the community. Reusing electronics is something we really want to put a lot more emphasis on, but it does prove more challenging than other items because we need to have them tested and make sure they aren’t completely broken, and we need people with the skills to repair them as well. We do have a skill share programme where members of the community sign up to learn a skill and we have had a skill share focused on repairing computers before. We do want to have a more direct and regular service where people can come in and learn for themselves how to repair their devices instead of going out and buying a new device. It would also be a dream to have a Reuse and Repair shop in St Andrews.”

Are you content with the University’s current policies on e-waste management or their environmental policies in general OR is there still a considerable amount of action that needs to take effect?

“I personally think within the last 2 years, the University has excelled in terms of environmental progress. We are seeing big structural changes like the creation of the ESB – Environmental sustainability Board – headed by Sir Ian Boyd. There is also a massive improvement in engagement and inclusion across the different groups such as staff, students, and some local businesses. The inclusion from the different groups within the St Andrews community is a step in the right direction. We also have people like Alan Clark, whom I work closely with, and as an environmental officer he is very influential in building better waste management strategies. There is still a lot to do such as food waste from halls of residence and issues with recycling bins and the stuff that goes in them. But the key thing is that the university is trying, more so now than ever.”

In light of the current pandemic, the attention has shifted away from environmental issues (plastic usage has drastically increased etc.). As an organisation with a committed and strong focus on climate action, how do we sustain environmental movements (how do we ensure that environmental issues get the platform and attention they deserve at all times)?

“As a result of the pandemic, we had to reduce our demand on a lot of the things we were used to – flights, tourism etc. – and so we actually saw the resultant effects of resurfacing of wildlife and ecosystems recovering a little bit. Most importantly, there has been a considerable amount of people who have started to engage with a self-sufficient lifestyle choice because the pandemic has caused people to realise that the effect of the pandemic on society is an example of what might happen if climate change intensifies. With regards to continuing to push for environmental issues, I think people are just having to work around the many hurdles the pandemic has created.”

“there has been a considerable amount of people who have started to engage with a self-sufficient lifestyle choice because the pandemic has caused people to realise that the effect of the pandemic on society is an example of what might happen if climate change intensifies.”

Reuse Orbis is still at its infancy in St Andrews, as an established environmental society, do you have any advice for our society or any passionate environmentalists in St Andrews?

“My advice would be do not be afraid of creative solutions or blue-sky thinking (Blue sky thinking refers to brainstorming with no limits- with this approach to idea generation, ideas do not need to be grounded in reality.). Sometimes, it might also be helpful to visualize your ideas in a way where you think about the final product or vision and conceptualise steps that will allow yourself to get to that vision. It’s also really important to try and establish connections with the many environmental societies and other societies in St Andrews, even if you might not necessary directly be working within the same field. For instance, Transition collaborates with societies such as the LGBTQ+ society, The BAME Students network etc. because unless you establish connections and collaborations, you will not go too far or achieve the greatest possible impact or reach the widest audience.”

Image via Transition St Andrews

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