Posted on February 10, 2011 - by

Green by Design: What’s Wrong with Recycling (Part 2)

Photo: Summon-The-Wolves

So, recycling is not such a great solution after all—materials that are downcycled eventually end up in a landfill anyway, and stretching a product past its intended lifetime can result in unintended effects. What do we do now? How do we close the loop, so that raw materials and goods, the “nutrients” for the industrial system, continue feeding the manufacturing cycle?

The answer is to that manufacturers must design products from the beginning to be used for more than one lifetime. If an item is intended for indefinite use, it will be structured so that the raw components can be recovered and transformed into something else. Right now, throwaway products are the norm, and it is easier to simply throw out items than to find ways to reuse them. Even for durable goods, like a radio or an iron, it is cheaper to buy a new one than to find ways to repair it. Rather than creating products to be used cradle-to-cradle, we design them to be used in a one-way cradle-to-grave model. We must move beyond that mindset.

In addition, materials have to actually be reclaimed, not thrown out or contaminated. All the well-intended design architecture in the world will do no good if people do not dispose of items in the right way. This is will require a significant amount of effort to educate consumers, a nontrivial task given that only 33.8% of municipal solid waste was recycled in the US in 2009 (EPA).

Let’s take a look at some examples of what such a product might look like. In Cradle to Cradle, William McDonough and Michael Braungart consulted with a chemical company on a “rent-a-solvent” program (Cradle to Cradle, 112). In modern manufacturing, a solvent is used to dissolve grease, removing it from machinery. Usually, companies simply purchase the cheapest solvent they can find, then flush the used solvent into wastewater flows, where it is handled by sewage treatment plants and subsequently lost. Under the rent-a-solvent concept, the solvent would be loaned as a degreasing service, then the emissions would be reclaimed and treated by the chemical company for repeated usage. That prevents the loss of the solvent and keeps toxic chemicals out of the wastewater system.

Another item that can be adapted to the rental model is carpeting. In conventional carpet manufacturing, when a carpet is worn out, the manufacturer can downcycle it by shaving off the nylon fibers on the top for reuse, and throwing the backing out. What if carpets were designed with a durable bottom foundation and a top layer that is interchangeable? When it is time to renovate and replace the carpeting, you could simply remove the top, snap a new layer in, and reclaim the old fibers for use in new carpet.

This ethos of eco-effective thinking is not just limited to products, but can be applied to buildings and factories as well. In 1999, when Ford chairman William Ford, Jr. decided to remake the River Rouge plant in Dearborn, MI, he was challenged with a site that had suffered decades of industrial pollution. Rather than abandoning the site and moving elsewhere, he committed to restoring the land to an ecologically productive environment.

The result was a manufacturing plant that harnesses the resources of its natural surroundings while nourishing the land around it. For instance, the roof and parking lots are able to absorb and store rainwater, which seeps into a constructed purification marsh, filled with plants, microbes and fungi. It takes three days for the water to make its way through this biological filtration system before entering the river. This prevents stormwater from flooding the river basin all at once, and eliminates the need for water treatment plants and additional piping, saving Ford as much as $35 million (Cradle to Cradle, 163).

What about non-durable goods like packaging? There’s no reason for a juice carton, take-out box, or lotion bottle to last much longer than the item it contains. Packaging could be designed to decompose wherever it lands, on the ground or in a compost heap. Biodegradable Styrofoam could be enriched with a small amount of nitrogen, adding nutrients back to the soil like fertilizer. In Brazil, bags made out of cassava starch have been developed that decompose safely in only 60 days (BrazzilMag). Contrast this with conventional plastic bags, which can take hundreds of years to break down.

How do you help usher in a new era in sustainable design? Well, consider how your designs can be used to close the material loop, to ensure that our planet’s scarce resources are never wasted. Ask your boss and employees to brainstorm how they can interlink outside the box. Look for innovative technology that promotes circular, cradle-to-cradle usage.

And don’t forget to keep recycling.

Drop me a line at



We'd love to hear yours!

Comments are closed.