Opinion

A Tyee Series

We Can Be Garbage Free

Trash is a choice. Time for 'Cradle to Cradle' design.

By Ruben Anderson, 28 Nov 2007, TheTyee.ca

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Recycled fashion: Better use for garbage bags?

A month after Vancouver finally settled its garbage strike, people are breathing easier as their cans once again fill and miraculously empty every week.

Which means we've missed a huge opportunity here. We should still be asking the true question raised by all that smelly inconvenience:

Why do we have garbage in the first place?

In fact, there is no reason we have garbage -- that is, no good reason. In fact, a world without garbage may be as easy as the red-faced emperor pulling on pants and a t-shirt.

It turns out that garbage is a choice -- and not just in the "do you recycle" kind of way. Garbage is the product of how we have decided to produce things and run our society.

Robert Ayres, who studies Industrial Metabolism, has calculated that 94 per cent of the inputs, the raw materials and energy that go into a product, never make it into the output, the finished item. In other words, we make way more garbage than we make stuff; it's just "easier" that way. And of course, most of the stuff we make is garbage.

Factor Four: Doubling Wealth -- Halving Resource Use, a study published for the Club of Rome, (a global non-profit that works for social change) found that, in North America, 80 per cent of products are discarded after a single use. Furthermore, 99 per cent of the materials used in the production of, or contained within goods, are discarded within the first six weeks. Factor Four estimated that we could maintain our current standard of living with only one-quarter the resources and energy, using current off-the-shelf technology.

Where is 'away?'

Architect William McDonough points out the problem of throwing garbage away. There is no away, it all goes somewhere. He likes to think about our current method of production as if it were a retroactive design assignment for his students, in which he asks them to create a system of production that:

  • puts billions of pounds of toxic material into the air, water, and soil every year
  • measures prosperity by activity, not legacy
  • requires thousands of complex regulations to keep people and natural systems from being poisoned too quickly
  • produces materials so dangerous that they will require constant vigilance from future generations
  • results in gigantic amounts of waste
  • puts valuable materials in holes all over the planet, where they can never be retrieved
  • erodes the diversity of biological species and cultural practices

Our trash piles earn us top grades in McDonough's Bad Design class. But the newly-popular eco-efficiency cult that tells us to drive a hybrid, weatherstrip our windows, recycle, and install compact fluorescent light bulbs is only marginally better. We are slowing the ship down, but still headed in the wrong direction. In other words, says McDonough, eco-efficiency:

  • releases fewer pounds of toxic material into the air, water, and soil every year
  • measures prosperity by less activity
  • meets or exceeds the stipulations of thousands of complex regulations that aim to keep people and natural systems from being poisoned too quickly
  • produces fewer dangerous materials that will require constant vigilance from future generations
  • results in smaller amounts of waste
  • puts fewer valuable materials in holes all over the planet, where they can never be retrieved
  • standardizes and homogenizes biological species and cultural practices

So, how would we live in a world without garbage? Naturally, there are many opinions. David Suzuki says that we should not extract anything from the lithosphere (the earth's crust), so that eliminates oil and metals. The Natural Step, a sustainability framework built on rigorous science, says that we should not allow our waste to be systematically concentrated in the environment, so no landfills or sewage lagoons or carbon dioxide emissions.

Aluminum as 'nutrient'

But all this does not clarify how to move forward into a blissful garbage-free existence. Enter William McDonough again who, with chemist Michael Braungart, developed the Cradle to Cradle concept. It's a book, it's a product certification system, but mostly it is a new way of doing things, a way of making things good, not just less bad.

Cradle to Cradle requires the materials we use to be either Biological Nutrients or Technical Nutrients. For example, for over a year International Paper has been making a coffee cup that is a Biological Nutrient. Throw it on the compost pile and it breaks down and nourishes life.

International Paper's coffee cup, the Ecotainer, is also cost-competitive with regular cups. Why is your local coffee shop not using them?

Technical Nutrients must be able to be re-used infinitely, and it is this that kills our recycling buzz. Almost everything that we recycle is not re-anything, it is downcycled. A plastic bottle cannot become a plastic bottle again; at best it becomes polar fleece, which we eventually throw away. It takes the plastic bottle a little longer to get to the landfill, but it gets there nonetheless. Don't stop recycling your plastic bottles, though. Downcycling is still less bad.

Aluminum, on the other hand, is truly recyclable. It is a Technical Nutrient, as is steel, glass, a couple of plastics and a bunch of other stuff. A can becomes a can becomes a can. As long as they are captured in a closed-loop system, they can hold our soda for millennia to come.

Recipe for a garbage diet

Fortunately, there are other ways to buy pop besides energy-intensive aluminum cans and downcyclable PET bottles. Denmark, for example, requires beverages to be sold in refillable containers. I know, I know. Scandinavia doesn't really count; they do everything better than us. Germany, too. In Germany, you can buy your Coke in a refillable plastic bottle.

Hold onto your six-pack though. Canada's very own Prince Edward Island has required that beer be sold in refillable bottles since 1973, and in 1984 they expanded this to cover all carbonated, flavoured beverages. Last time I checked this did not cause the end of Western Democracy.

There we go, between Cradle to Cradle design and smart re-use systems, we have a recipe for a world without garbage. We can have beer and pop, we can have coffee cups. If we are careful with our choice of dyes, our cotton and wool can be Biological Nutrients and some of our synthetic fibres can be Technical Nutrients. Even our housing can fit into the framework of closed loop sustainability. Shaw and Interface make Cradle to Cradle carpets. Wood building studs can be reused or biodegrade. Drywall is a Technical Nutrient. McDonough and Braungart have designed a car for Ford, the Model U, and shoes for Nike. Once we start thinking this way, there doesn't seem to be a limit. Many of us pay a deposit for milk bottles, why not a deposit system for take-out coffee mugs or reusable cloth shopping bags?

It turns out we didn't have to wait for the city workers to begin hauling the garbage from our back alleys.

By thinking about what we make and what we buy, we can eliminate garbage ourselves.

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