Avoiding Landfill: The Second Life of Products

bellwether1By Priscilla Burgess

A while back, I asked Celery Design Cooperative to figure out green packaging for our insulation that didn’t cost more than the product itself. Celery’s studio was next door to a sake distillery. Daily the staff watched fat, white bags of rice being dumped in the yard, then flat, white bags thrown into a dumpster.

Celery Design borrowed some bags, turned them inside out, silkscreened our logo on them and stuffed the insulation inside. I was thrilled with the entire concept: find a new use for polypropylene bags that never degrade and keep them out of the waste stream. This was the first time I’d heard about repurposing. I thought it was a brilliant solution.

Then reality struck. Where were we going to find more bags? How could we guarantee a large enough supply that would be delivered as needed? Who was going to turn them inside out and silkscreen them? How were they going to be stuffed? Would the insulation be damaged by stuffing and unstuffing? How would we collect the bags from the construction site? There was no system set up to repurpose grain bags. I realized we’d have to start another company just to manage our packaging.

Repurposing grain bags would not require locking techies up in a room for five years to figure out the process. The process is clear. It’s just that no one is doing it.

The idea of a second life for products is familiar on an informal, piecemeal basis. We have garage sales, flea markets, antique shops, city recycling and myriad other ways of passing on stuff we don’t want any more.

However, this approach doesn’t work on a corporate level. While I enjoy searching for treasures in other people’s junk, I realized it just wasn’t feasible to set up my own repurposing scheme to manage packaging. This realization caused me to question the way people think about keeping stuff out of landfills.

Bellwether2Who should be responsible? The manufacturers or the products’ owners at the end of its usefulness? Or could there be a third way?

Ken Alston of MBDC, a C2C company, believes that managing the second life of products will be a huge new industry. The jobs created will be new, not just shuffled from one company to another. This new industry will include repurposing, reuse, recycling, and all the other re-’s. It has already started.

repurposedMATERIALS in Colorado has kept over two million pounds of waste out of landfill in the two years since Damon Carson started his business. There’s a fair amount of creativity involved in his work as well as a broad knowledge of industries and materials. Who knew that discarded steel cables from Colorado ski resorts would be treasured by the dredging industry in Minnesota? Or that discarded burlap bags that had once held coffee beans would be perfect for shipping seafood? The important point is that none of the companies had to figure this out for themselves. A third company did it for them.

So, rather than trying to force manufacturers to set up a process for the second life of their products, there are a couple things they could do: be sure the materials the products are made from are clearly stated on the product itself or published on their websites. This would tell Carson if, for example, the burlap bags would be safe to hold food; they could include information about companies who manage the second life process.

If the companies knowingly make dangerous products, like petroleum companies; include planned obsolescence in their bottom lines, like Apple Computer; or manufacture products with no second life, like fluorescent lights, they should help pay for recycling, reuse, or environmental clean up.

For those who own the products at the end of their usefulness, there has to be a way to collect them and send them on to the repurposer.

One example of a very easy process is that used for laser printer cartridges. The old one goes into the box the new one came in. There is a sticky-backed shipping label in the box with instructions of where to drop it off. The process is so convenient there is little resistance to using it. HP claims that hundreds of millions of cartridges have been kept from landfill by their recycling process.

What is needed now are all you brilliant people out there who are fascinated by hard problems. How do we set up this third layer for the second life of products? What processes need to be in place? How do we let companies and individuals know about them? Lots to think about and much to do.

Meanwhile, I like the idea of those burlap bags.

Priscilla Burgess is CEO, Co-inventor and Co-founder of Bellwether Materials, an award-winning, GIIRS-rated, triple-bottom line company that manufactures deep green building insulation made from an agricultural by-product. Before founding Bellwether Materials, she ran her own management consulting business. She has traveled all over the world, asking questions about how people work and from that, has developed several models and many opinions about the best way to grow a flourishing business.

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