The Problem with Recycling

Note: This is the second in a series of posts on the ideas that influenced my thinking on the Ecosystem.  William McDonough and Michael Braungart’s book Cradle to Cradle was essential in giving me a vocabulary to speak about the amorphous ideas that had been oozing through my brain, so the first few posts in this series will be built around concepts from McDonough and Braungart’s books.

Recycling, at least as it’s practiced today, decreases the quality of the material.  Recycled items are typically created from a mix of materials, and little or no effort is made to separate those materials before processing.  When you mix steel with copper, aluminum with paint or fiber with ink, the resulting mix is inherently weaker than the original.

Let’s look at one of the most ubiquitous machines of our time – the laptop.  It’s a complex mix of metals, plastics, and valuable elements.  But when a laptop reaches the end of its useful life, what do we do with it?

It depends on the individual – personally, I’ve got three old computers hanging around until I find the time to wipe them and put them on Craigslist for parts.  But given that it’s 2015 and they date to 2008, 2010 and 2011 respectively, I can’t say there’s likely to be much demand.  Eventually they’ll end up in a landfill or in some recycling program; I may opt to take them to a recycler myself depending on my mood when I do finally get around to disposing of them.

Since the components of a computer are valuable, you’d think that they would be disassembled and recycled with like materials.  Some manufacturers are starting down this path.  But in most cases, recycled electronics are pulverized, melted down, and the resulting weakened material is used in a lower quality product.

People tend to approach recycled items as automatically good – after all, isn’t the motto supposed to be reduce, reuse and recycle?  But if a product isn’t designed to be recycled, the process of turning it in to something else requires so many chemicals that the resulting product isn’t all that safe or pleasant.  Paper is often down cycled into insulation, and sold at a premium as a ‘green product’.  But turning paper into insulation requires fungicides to combat mildew, formaldehyde to prevent the natural process of decay, and doesn’t do anything to address the often toxic components of colored inks.  The resulting insulation isn’t stable in the new green home, and can off gas noxious chemicals into the rooms it keeps warm.

The world is full of recycled products that mask major problems under a green exterior.

If products are designed from the beginning to be recycled, the components can be recycled with like components and the quality can be maintained.  The aluminum alloy body of an Apple computer can be melted down and shaped into the equally strong body of a new Apple computer.  The plastic water bottle can be easily separated from its top and label and become another water bottle.  Any material could be  shaped into something equally valuable – or decompose to provide nutrients for biological systems.

The book Cradle to Cradle refers to materials as either being technological or biological in nature.  Technological nutrients can be recycled with like materials, as described earlier, and biological materials can be returned to biological cycles as nutrients – or at the very least, return without doing any harm.