Posted on February 9, 2011 - by

Green by Design: What’s Wrong with Recycling

Image: Good Lifer

In last week’s post on packaging and household waste, I mentioned that recycling was one way to reduce the amount of trash you send to landfills. This is true, but not the whole story. Actually, in many ways, recycling is not a sustainable solution, and distracts from how to resolve our growing waste problem.

Sure, the naysayers can point out the added administrative costs of a municipal recycling program and educating the public on how to use and deposit their recyclables. There’s the extra labor to collect and separate the materials; it is less cost-effective for crews to pick up recyclables because they are picking up fewer materials with each stop. There’s the argument that the market price of most recycled materials is far below the cost of processing and converting them. (It costs $4000 to recycle one ton of plastic bags, while the recycled product can be sold for only $32.) And while the northeastern corridor and select metropolitan areas may be running out of space for landfills, one could argue that there’s plenty of space in the middle of the country for a nice landfill that will later be planted over with grass and turned into national parkland.

All these criticisms of recycling are not fundamentally important.

The key problem with recycling is that it is actually downcycling: the materials go down in quality over time. In the landmark treatise on green product design Cradle to Cradle, William McDonough and Michael Braungart wrote:

“When plastics other than those found in soda and water bottles are recycled, they are mixed with different plastics to produce a hybrid of lower quality, which is then molded into something amorphous and cheap, such as a park bench or a speed bump… Aluminum is another valuable but constantly downcycled material. The typical soda can consists of two kinds of aluminum: the walls are composed of aluminum, manganese alloy with some magnesium, plus coatings and paint, while the harder top is aluminum magnesium alloy. In conventional recycling these materials are melted together, resulting in a weaker—and less useful—product.” (Cradle to Cradle, 56-57)

In other words, with most recyclables, you can’t just keep reusing the same materials over and over again. Eventually, they are downcycled to a point where it is no longer economically or chemically feasible to transform them, and they are thrown out into the landfill that you were trying to avoid. So much for closed-loop materials usage.

Even worse, products made from recycled materials can have harmful additives and toxins. When plastics are melted together, chemical or mineral additives may be used to recoup the clarity and strength of the original plastic. Downcycled paper requires bleaching to make it blank again, and the result is an amalgamation of chemicals, pulp and toxic inks. Wearing clothing made with fibers from recycled plastics means your fleece sweater likely contains catalytic residues, ultraviolet stabilizers, plasticizers and other additives, which were never designed to be in extended contact with human skin. If a product was not designed from the start to be recycled, continued use past its intended lifetime can have unintended consequences.

At this point, you may be looking at your mound of carefully washed and sorted recyclables in dismay. And don’t get me wrong—recycling is still better than simply chucking everything out. However, if recycling is not the solution, then what is?

Let’s step back for a moment and start over. What if we completely overhauled our thinking and designed products to be used forever? Right now, we generate a multitude of products, like plastic bags and styrofoam boxes, that are designed to be used once and thrown out. What if we created products that could be tossed onto the ground, decompose and return nutrients to nature? Or that could be returned to the industrial system to cycle indefinitely as high-quality materials? What if we did this not only with paper books and plastic bottles, but with sneakers and cars and building roofs?

What would the world look like then?

Stay tuned tomorrow for part 2 of “Green by Design.”

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    February 10, 2011


    Warren H said:

    This is a very challenging conversation. As a former product designer, one has to question, how is this motivation for companies to come about? ‘Cheaper’ is by far the biggest push in the NA consumer market. ‘Cheaper over a lifecycle’ is something that businesses can be educated about, but only the largest will take to heart. I say there is a role for third-party agencies to take arole – propose standards and methods, even designs, push the early adopters, trumpet successes … for the payoff of 1) increase membership 2) saving us despite ourselves.

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    February 10, 2011


    Crystal Cun said:

    Definitely not an easy topic, and you’re quite right, there is no motivation for companies concerned about short-term profits to take the lead on this issue. The impetus will likely have to come from governments and regulatory agencies (inspired by grassroots support?). But hey, it could happen, even Walmart is trying to sell healthier food, if only because they see it as a marketing opportunity to increase their competitive advantage.