Things must be manufactured with greater longevity

Robert Bolman

“Recycling” – Design Truly Cyclical, Sustainable Systems

When a tree falls down in a forest, it is broken down into a complex biological system producing no toxicity & no waste and it ultimately results in a new tree.  This is how nature recycles.  It’s a truly cyclical and sustainable system.  If forests were not sustainable, they would have vanished long ago.  

When humans “recycle”, we make petroleum into a plastic bottle which might then be “recycled” into a far cruder plastic product (like deck lumber or a park bench) which will then go to a landfill at the end of it’s service life.  This is not true recycling because it is a linear process: Oil-plastic bottle-plastic lumber-landfill. Many US cities are facing a recycling/waste crisis because China has finally refused to accept many of our “recycled” items, which are often too dirty or mixed for them to process.  The whole matter of packaging needs to be fully redesigned and engineered with (actual) recycling and reuse in mind.

Disposable bottles, cans and jars should be replaced with a standardized assortment of heavy glass bottles and jars that are sold with a stiff deposit guaranteeing that they will be returned, washed and refilled over and over again.  Being in my 60’s, I remember when milk, soda pop and beer were sold this way.  We can do it again in an expanded fashion.  The already established standard of canning jars and “crown cap” beer bottles would be a good place to start.  It should be possible to buy pickles in a jar one week that had peanut butter in it a week earlier.  

It takes virtually the same amount of energy (typically natural gas) to recycle a glass bottle as it takes to make a new one out of raw materials (sand).  As the fossil fuels dwindle, this will become untenable.  A new system to replace the current one should be developed now.

Many other forms of packaging should be designed either to be fully recyclable, reusable or compostable.  The practice of landfilling our waste is ultimately unsustainable and should only be a last option.  Various types of packaging could be made permanent and returned for shipping new products.

Planned Obsolescence and the Lifespan of Durable Goods

Durable goods should be much more durable.  Countless consumer products ranging from houses to electronics to cars should be manufactured to last a lot longer.  Then at the ends of their lifespans, it should be possible for them to be disassembled, restored or meaningfully recycled.  

It has been suggested that people shouldn’t buy appliances, cars or electronics, but instead should lease them from the manufacturer.  That way, manufacturers will have an incentive to design the product with its eventual recycling in mind.  After all, we don’t explicitly WANT to own a car, a dishwasher or a television.  We want to be able to move around, have our dishes cleaned and watch programs.

In addition to fossil fuels, all metals and minerals are finite, non-renewable resources.  When they’re gone, they’re gone (unless we’re eventually able to mine asteroids).  Unlike fossil fuels, metals CAN be recycled but with each recycling process some of the metal is typically lost to oxidation and purity is reduced.  Metals dumped into landfills are so dispersed that it remains to be seen if they’ll ever be recovered.

Manufacturers like to make products with just enough quality that people will buy them, but not enough quality that they are at a disadvantage where competing in the market is concerned.  (It’s that “wise” hand of the free market…)  Furthermore, planned obsolescence IS a reality.  There can be no doubt that manufacturers WANT their products to wear out so that we’ll buy more.  Of course, in this age of rapid technological advancement, electronic products are made with a finite lifespan based on the assumption that future versions of a product will have yet more features for most of us to not give a shit about.

It is foolish to use non-renewable fossil fuel energy to make non-renewable metals and minerals into stupid consumer products that last a short time and then end up in a landfill.  If we want to become a truly advanced civilization that goes on to explore the stars then we can’t remain on such a  short term, unsustainable trajectory.