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Why We’re Getting Recycling All Wrong – And What Can Be Done About It

| Friday June 11th, 2010 | 12 Comments

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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.


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  • Larrycarlin

    This article shows the incredible ignorance of the people and companies that believe that to really recycle things must be made back into what they were made into originally.

    This is a truely faulse and extremely highly environmentally distructive attitude and belief.

    Their ideas are simpy a way to sustaing their incredibly archaeic thought process and their own goals of money making.

    The things that are available for “recycling” should be made into dirt and energy which is what they were in the beginning. That is if it costs more money and energy to make them back into the products they were initially made into.

    To make them back into what they were means that they should be energy (the sun) and soils (the earth).

    This type of mentality by the so self titled and proclaimed IMS is destructive and rediculous at best.

    The least environmentally impacting and least costly methods for “Recycling” produce the best results for the planet and the people.

    These people want subsidised business and money losing propositions to pad their jobs and bankroll.

    I have some of the same interests but not in further damaging the planet and wasting money of the tax payers and local businesses.

    Thanks for listening.

    Curtis L. Harris
    CEP
    Inergy Plus Technologies

    http://www.inergyplustechnologies.com

    • http://progressivetimes.wordpress.com T. Caine

      Curtis, I'm not sure where the direction of your argument really is, but if you are supporting environmental stewardship and moving towards a sustainable society, then the goal should be efficiency that reduces our waste stream which very well may involve a shift in our priorities.

      We should be forming new processes and methods for producing, selling, shipping and disposing products by forming closed loops of materials. In the end, the barometer of what is the “best results for the planet” has nothing to do with your bottom line, or any other company's. It has to do with the net energy wasted in order to facilitate a supply chain. We have relatively few models that have actually studied and practiced the full capabilities of material lifecycles.

      The bulk of construction + demolition waste does not have to go into the ground, or into the magic boxes that your company sells, but can be reused as building materials of equal value (like this article talks about) if we change the way that we take buildings apart. Most of the plastic that we produce is not recycled and ends up harming the planet for centuries. New processes that change the way we allocate materials or develop packaging solutions can change that. And just because it may cost more does not mean it's the wrong direction. Since when is the cheapest solution always the smartest?

  • paisley

    We can look for examples of how we did it before we became the throw away society. Time for using and then returning all glass bottles. Time to get rid of paper plates and plastic dinner ware and plastic table cloths. Throw the appropriate food waste in the garden or compost bin. Start growing some or all of your food. Get rid of fragrant candles and soap and deodorizers that don't do anything but cover odors. Go back to wood floors and wool carpet.
    Go back to what we did before we became so wasteful.

    • Realhuman

      What's a glass bottle? I haven't seen one of those in years!

    • Realhuman

      Paisley, I say that in jest, but with just a bit of seriousness. I think there's value in what you say, but I think the wastefulness genie has long been released from the bottle. Every choice has a consequence. Returnable glass bottles sound good, but what about all the fuel burned carrying those heavy empties back and forth? What about the energy to heat the water to sterilize them or, worse, the chemicals that may be used? Disposable plates/tableware are a drop in the bucket compared to other waste by volume. And it would take a heck of a lot of sheep to carpet the world – sheep occupying a heck of a lot of land… consuming a lot of food… producing a lot of methane…

      While it's good to look backwards for some inspiration, the real innovation is going to be in materials science. Curtis makes a great point above – products don't have to be designed to be upcycled or infinitely recycled without loss of quality. A fully compostable, carbon neutral, “net zero” durable material is possible, and I predict we'll see some breakthroughs in the near future.

  • Zava

    “It’s when 100% of what’s made can be remade into the same thing that we’ll be where we need to be”: 100% would be nice but 100% sustainability is impossible. It's like trying to achieve the speed of light or arguing that perpetual motion machines can be created to produce free and unlimited energy forever. 100% sustainability is certainly impossible within a closed system where consumption of energy—which is limited—continues by a population that is ever growing and expanding. We live within a closed system, and we humans, have a knack for rushing entropy to our own detriment. True, during the recycling process, “materials of a lesser or different quality than the source material” are created, but this is due to an inescapable truth at work—entropy. Therefore, recycling efficiently to recover some energy is better than not recycling at all or recycling inefficiently and producing a net loss of energy. Furthermore, even when materials can be recycled into the same material, energy is still lost. The best humanity can do is be as sustainable as possible, and governments need to inventory and act with prudence for the future. Otherwise, how will we feed a growing population the energy, food, raw materials, or even recycled materials that it needs when there isn't enough to go around (though, just like in some countries today, society would collapse before reaching this point or would be a very dismal place to live)—amongst a backdrop of other problems such as war, disease, pollution, and climate change—other indicators of entropy within a system. No doubt, technological advancement and serious planning can alleviate or even solve these problems, but we will always be constrained by entropy and the Second Law. We need leadership that understands humanity's predicament.

    • Paul Arthur Smith

      Many great ideas start out sounding impossible, crazy, deluded. I'm sure this is in some ways aspirational, but why not aim for 100% true recyclability? If not, you're 100% going to fail at the goal. This is their planting of a flag in the ground, and seeking out others to methodically go about working towards it.

      I wrote the woman who directs this effort to let her know I'd written about it and invited her to comment here. Let's see if she does.

  • Loo Anne

    Read “Natural Capitalism” by Paul Hawking, Amory Lovins, and Hunter Lovins. Great case studies and discussion relevant to this topic.

    Basically, eliminate muda.

  • http://twitter.com/britesprite britesprite

    “100% sustainability is impossible”.

    Blinks.

    Sorry Zava, but I imagine that you don't mean that.

    I'm not looking for a discussion on the definition of sustainability, but it stands to reason that we cannot consume more resources than can be produced. That observation, however phrased, is what lies at the heart of sustainability.

    The extractive industries are a good case in point. We consume more raw oil, petrol and metals and minerals than are produced .. they are therefore unsustainable. Recycling (in whatever guise) is simply a way of slowing down extraction to make unsustainable industry last longer, nothing more.

    Sustainability is the imperative. If we do not work out how to use only those resources that are replaced and no more, we will soon run out of resources. And then what will happen, we'll all shrug and say “100% sustainability was never achievable anyway”?

    I hope not.

  • http://twitter.com/britesprite britesprite

    “100% sustainability is impossible”.

    Blinks.

    Sorry Zava, but I imagine that you don't mean that.

    I'm not looking for a discussion on the definition of sustainability, but it stands to reason that we cannot consume more resources than can be produced. That observation, however phrased, is what lies at the heart of sustainability.

    The extractive industries are a good case in point. We consume more raw oil, petrol and metals and minerals than are produced .. they are therefore unsustainable. Recycling (in whatever guise) is simply a way of slowing down extraction to make unsustainable industry last longer, nothing more.

    Sustainability is the imperative. If we do not work out how to use only those resources that are replaced and no more, we will soon run out of resources. And then what will happen, we'll all shrug and say “100% sustainability was never achievable anyway”?

    I hope not.

  • Jonesklara6

    Great post :) I am completely agree with you. Everyone should recycle. Even the rubbish removal companies already do that. So we should follow the RR&R . Cheers !

  • http://www.kwiksweep.com Mark

    lots of rubbish removal companies recycle now a days. I think we should promote reusing more then recycling, that’s just my view.

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