Recycling. It’s everywhere these days, having gone far beyond the usual suspects and showing up in the most mainstream of retailers. Upcycling is catching on thanks to the company unafraid to embrace big brands and big boxes, TerraCycle. But there’s a problem, as Portland’s Institute for Material Sustainability points out: Most of what we call recycling is really downcycling: Creating materials of a lesser or different quality than the source material.
To their mind, even materials that can be recycled into the same material (i.e. aluminum) are missing the point. It’s when 100% of what’s made can be remade into the same thing that we’ll be where we need to be.
More than just theorizing about what could be, i4ms as it likes to be called has a well planned out path to this being realized:
Goal 1: Develop Perpetually Reusable Materials
Sensibly, they seek to collaborate with engineers and industry to create the foundational materials to be used in a range of products. From the example list they give, this is from the start geared to real world application, not laboratory vaporware.
Goal 2: Develop New Products and Processes
Having infinitely recyclable materials would be useless without the infrastructure to first make use of them in production, and have systems in place to disassemble and reprocess products.
Goal 3: Construct Working Models of Systems for Material Sustainability
They put it best, saying, “Before a physical working model can be constructed, a system simulation is needed to optimize processes and revenue earnings.”
Goal 4: Establish a Consulting Agency
Knowing that there will be a range of businesses, from those that already have a certain level of savvy and initiative to those that need an active partner throughout the process, they started by creating a book on the subject, called Recycle Everything: Why We Must – How We Can, and are now in the process of creating a non profit consulting agency.
All well and good, but even if they succeed in their mission, will a substantial number of companies shift to this mode of design thinking, production, and reproduction? My sense is there will be initial indifference, until a major company successfully commercializes a product and further, demonstrates that it’s more profitable to do it this way.
Or it may come to the point where, due to a lack of available resources, companies may just have to go this route.
Readers: What’s your thoughts on the future of materials science, sustainable design, and how to make it doable by mass, commodity based companies? Can you see a way to make this school of production applicable to price focused categories?
Paul Smith is a sustainable business innovator, the founder of GreenSmith Consulting, and has an MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco. He creates interest in, conversations around, and business for green (and greening) companies, via social media.