Sorting Problem, The

Work can be divided into two essential kinds: mixing and sorting (unmixing). There are exceptions subject to circumstances, but as a rule it can be affirmed that mixing is most efficiently done on the large scale, while sorting is most efficiently done on the small scale. This latter is an example of a diseconomy (inefficiency) of scale.

Here we discover a way of making sense of mixed messages about economies of scale. Lean Logic tells a clear story about the importance of economies of scale and specialisation of labour in supporting civic societies (Intermediate Economy). It also tells a story about the case for doing things on a small scale, locally (Localisation). They are both right, but some reflection is needed.

An example to start with: to mix (shuffle) a pack of cards, it is necessary to collect all the cards together—this is done quickly on the large scale, with little attention to detail. But to sort it into tricks and patterns you need step-by-step deliberation on the small scale.

For an example closer to practical matters, consider the case of bread. We start with the ingredients, ready and waiting in the village bakery: flour, water, yeast, salt; an oven, bread tins, wood; the expertise of the baker. Now light the fire, mix the dough, bake, turn-out, sell. This is primarily a mixing operation; the stores of bulk ingredients are mixed and turned into a more complex product; and it has required a lot of energy, as proved by the ash, which is all that is left of the wood. It is clear that economies of scale apply. If the village baker—rather than each of the village’s 150 households—makes the bread, the process requires only one fire, one mixing process, one delivery of ingredients, and one daily use of the equipment. The bread also benefits from the baker’s specialist skills. If every household were to make its own bread, there would indeed be secondary benefits such as the satisfaction that comes from doing so, but from the point of view of economies of energy, materials and time—that is, efficiency—the advantage of central provision by the village bakery are evident.

Economies of scale when mixing also apply in (for instance) making wine and beer, glasses, pots or nails, weaving cloth, baking bread, printing newsletters. The geometry of scale can work in favour of bigness: the larger the containers you use, the less glass or metal you need to store a given amount of liquid. In order to keep itself alive, our community has to do a great deal of mixing, and there is a case for doing some of it centrally, rather than on the scale of individual households.

But then there is the sorting out to do. From each of these processes, there is an end-product and there is also leftover waste such as: empty bottles, broken pots, bent nails, urine, faeces and unwanted paper. If a closed-loop flow of materials is to be maintained, that lot has to be sorted. Now, the first principle of sorting is: try to stop it getting scrambled in the first place. In the case of water management, for instance, an effective and manageable use of human sewage as a source of fertility requires (ideally) that urine and faeces should be separate, so that they can be used and treated in the different ways they need. Urine goes rancid quickly and, if it is to be used in the garden, it needs to be used quickly. Composted faeces should be handled on a small scale for many reasons: if it is in large bulk, it will be (unless constantly turned) deprived of oxygen, with the result that it will break down very slowly, anaerobically, producing a challenging smell, and losing nitrogen in the process. In short, waste in all its variety has to be sorted—which in this context means, as far as possible and as a clear and feasible aim, kept separate. Sorting starts with the first moment of use. But all this depends on it being done on a small scale.


Another look at the distinction between (small-scale) sorting and (large-scale) mixing.

All mixing—all provision of goods and services—involves a certain amount of sorting, and some sorting involves mixing, so tolerance of exceptions and that fuzzy borderline is necessary here, along with, perhaps, a guideline borrowed from Adam Smith.

In his famous explanation of the improved efficiencies that can be had from the division of labour, he suggests that there are three reasons for them: the dexterity that comes from repetition, the saving of time that comes from concentrating on one task rather than switching between tasks, and the convenient use of machines. Each of these are available to the task because it is being done in bulk—as, for instance, in the making of nails, where . . .

. . . the division of labour, by reducing every man’s business to some one simple operation, and by making this operation the sole employment of his life, necessarily increased very much the dexterity of the workman. A common smith, who, though accustomed to handle the hammer, has never been used to make nails, if upon some particular occasion he is obliged to attempt it, will scarcely, I am assured, be able to make above two or three hundred nails in a day, and those, too, very bad ones. . . . [By contrast,] I have seen several boys under twenty years of age who had never exercised any other trade but that of making nails, and who, when they exerted themselves, could make each of them upward of two thousand three hundred nails in a day.S89

Perhaps if Smith were writing now, he would have used the case of bottle manufacture.

Every kind and shape of drinks bottle is routinely mixed by giant distribution networks and by households. Separating them all out and returning them to the drinks manufacturers to be reused would require a costly establishment of labour-intensive sorting, which is why it isn’t done. If the drinks providers were on a small (village) scale, the sorting would happen easily: all bottles would be reused. At a household level, jam makers reuse their bottles for many years.


Generally speaking, the sorting of waste on a small scale has these properties (relative to sorting at large scale):

1. The waste materials have more surface area (per unit of volume), making them more accessible both to the sorters and to the air.

2. The sorting is more accurate, allowing discrimination at a higher level of detail.

3. The sorting is a smaller task, which can be done easily as part of the day’s work (rather than as a full-time job). This means that better judgment, referring to context, needs and opportunities, can be made when considering the detail of how to bring this waste back into the local ecology and economy.

4. There is the opportunity for effective feedback and learning: the small-scale sorter is always looking for ways to reduce the task.

5. It avoids the disgusting and dangerous properties of industrial-scale waste.S90

6. It is cheaper: small-scale sorting sits easily in the informal economy. Large-scale sorting is a horrible job that has to be paid for.

7. It requires less energy: it can be done entirely by hand. Large-scale sorting requires heavy-material-handling equipment and the energy for magnetic-separation systems and the like.

8. It requires less transport, since waste materials do not have to be driven to a sorting centre and back.

The use of the small scale has benign implications. It limits the depth of disorder that is likely to build up if the sorting task is allowed to accumulate on the large scale.

It may, therefore, avoid the necessity for the comprehensive crash—or “release”—discussed in the Wheel of Life. In fact, as discussed in that entry, within the bounds of the small scale, cycles of release and renewal can take place without being lethal to the system as a whole; they confer long life on a large—but subdivided (modular)—natural or cultural community. Nature goes through these sub-cycles all the time. If they are allowed to happen, they can prevent the need for a large-scale crash, making the ecology as a whole resilient.

Small-scale sorting, by preventing bulk chaos, can sustain a living ecology. The enabling condition is that the system should give it a chance. Small scale is not a matter of preference: it is a requirement of logic.


Related entries:

Casuistry, Manual Skills, Vernacular.

David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was a cultural historian and economist, based in London, England. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a pioneer of post-growth economics, and a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, 'Lean Logic' and 'Surviving the Future', published posthumously in 2016. These in turn inspired the 2020 launches of both BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong's feature film about Fleming's perspective and legacy - 'The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation?' - and Sterling College's unique 'Surviving the Future: Conversations for Our Time' online courses. For more information on all of the above, including Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

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