Posts Tagged ‘recycling’

Posted on February 14, 2011 - by

Valentine’s Day: Green is the New Red

It’s Valentine’s Day. And though this may fill you with giddiness or groans, take a moment to step back and consider someone who needs more lovin’ from all of us: Planet Earth. So, whether you are celebrating Valentine’s Day with a significant other, friends or family, keep the following guidelines in mind for ecofriendly festivities that everyone can feel good about.

  • Think carefully about how you source your gifts. That means: locally grown, pesticide-free flowers, fair trade chocolate, conflict-free diamonds.
  • Better yet, rather than giving cut flowers that will shrivel in 2 days, give seeds or a potted plant that will grow and bloom for months to come, while removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
  • Consider not sending a paper card. The 2.6 billion greeting cards sold each year in the U.S. could fill a football field 10 stories high (Clean Air Council).
  • Bypass the cheesiness of Hallmark. Pick up a wedge of local, artisanal cheese instead.
  • Beat the crowds and harried servers at restaurants. Open up a bottle of organically produced wine, and make dinner at home.
  • Recycle and upcycle old materials into gifts. Bike wheel clock, anyone?
  • Or maybe your significant other doesn’t really need more stuff anyway. How about gift certificates (to the hair salon, golf course), tickets to a sporting event or play, or IOUs for a last-minute errand or cleaning the bathroom?

What (if anything) are you doing to celebrate today? Do you compost your dried flower cuttings? What do you do when you can’t eat all that chocolate?

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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.

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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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Posted on February 1, 2011 - by

No Rubbish Ideas: Rethinking Household Waste

How much trash did you generate last week? In an impressive feat of conservation, last year the Strauss family managed to pare down its waste disposal to merely one bag through vigorous recycling, growing their own food, and buying directly from producers.

To minimize packaging waste, the family opts to bring their own containers to the butcher and deli, and puts loose fruit and vegetables into reusable bags. All food leftovers are turned into new dishes or composted, and the lights run partly on solar energy. Cereal packaging is transformed into sandwich bags, and plastic ties from toys are used to stake tomato plants.

The average American produces 4.5 lbs of waste every day. About 31% of that is packaging and container waste. Food scraps account for 12.7% of waste, and only 2.5% of that gets composted. Less than 1% of plastic bags are recycled each year. However, it costs $4000 to recycle one ton of plastic bags, while the recycled product can be sold for only $32. (Source: Clean Air Council)

Rachelle Strauss reflected on the progress they’ve made since they first embarked on their zero waste project.

”It’s taken us 18 months to get to this level and we’ve put a lot of determination and effort into it. But if everyone just takes a few more steps towards recycling they can make a huge difference across the globe. A simple first step is not taking plastic bags at the supermarket and finding out from your local council where recycling points are.

”You can’t just buy something because it’s on offer or because it looks nice but you need to think seriously about how you’re going to throw it away when you’ve finished with it.”

At the end of the year, the only things that were thrown out were a few razor blades, broken toys and old felt tip pens.

You may not be ready to commit to that level of packaging austerity, but there are several steps you can take to reduce the amount of food and packaging waste you produce.

  • Find out how you can take advantage of municipal recycling programs.
  • Support local farmers and green retailers who use ecofriendly packaging.
  • Purchase products that use smart packaging, with biodegradeable polymers and minimalistic design.
  • Reuse packages to store other products.
  • Talk to your friends and family about the magnitude and consequences of our waste problem.
  • Think ahead when purchasing groceries and plan meals so that your food is used before it spoils. Take inventory of your refrigerator regularly.
  • Cooking can be a community experience! If you are a single-person household, pot luck with your neighbors to share excess food.

Is the Strauss family batty or ingenious? Do you regularly bring bags to the grocery store? Write on the backs of every scrap of paper? Send e-cards rather than buying Hallmark? What other steps do you take to reduce waste?

For more information on the Strauss’ feat, check out their website at