Living Spaces—Taking Out the Trash

By Elizabeth Marglin

If you count yourself among the ecologically minded, chances are you focus a certain amount of brainpower and energy on minimizing the environmental impact of your consumption. For most of us, responsible trash disposal begins and ends with recycling. In the assortment of bins under our sinks, we segregate our carefully rinsed glass, plastic, and aluminum. And the satisfying thump of yesterday’s newspaper in the recycling box signals room for today’s paper on our breakfast table and in our environment. Or does it?

Certainly recycling factors significantly in reducing waste, but it’s really only one part of an oft-overlooked three-tiered strategy: reduce, reuse, and recycle. We’ve become so good at recycling that we’ve made it the star of the sustainability movement, when it really should be just one of the players.

Since recycling deals only with the back end of consumption (disposal), it treats the symptoms of the disease rather than its root cause: the overproduction of trash. The new approach to sustainable consumption, however, focuses not just on how we dispose of a product (à la recycling), but on how we produce that product in the first place (dubbed precycling). It strives to create goods using nontoxic, recyclable, or reusable materials with the least amount of packaging and waste. In fact, precycling is fast becoming the most effective approach to long-term sustainability.

Getting to the source
Precycling resonates so powerfully as a concept and practice because it targets the production of industrial waste as well. While it’s important for each of us to manage our own consumption and waste disposal effectively, residential trash is just a drop in the landfill bucket. Nonhazardous industrial waste outweighs municipal solid waste by about 11 to one and accounts for about 98 percent of the nation’s waste. Clearly, the mere act of sorting one’s trash efficiently is not going to make a huge dent in the collective dustbin. To effectively reduce the by-products of our consumption addiction, the industries that drive it have to become part of the solution. If our end of the bargain is to consume more wisely and dispose better, manufacturers as a group need to produce more sustainable goods. This has to be the most important paradigm shift in the recycling world: getting manufacturers more involved with the entire life cycle of their products, from production to disposal.

By encouraging companies to produce less waste, use environmentally friendly materials, and design their products to be durable, recyclable, or reusable, we can tackle the problem from the front end while continuing to work the back end through reducing, reusing, and recycling.

Two of the leaders of this new perspective, William McDonough and Michael Braungart, an architect and a chemist respectively, cowrote Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things (North Point Press, 2002). McDonough and Braungart talk about “design being a signal of intention.” They have abandoned industry’s standard cradle-to-grave mentality, in which products are destined to be disposable and to become obsolete. Instead these two pioneers, who together design everything from factories to ice cream wrappers, incorporate into their projects the intention to “eliminate the concept of waste.”

Even the “paper” Cradle to Cradle is printed on signals their intention to remake everyday objects into something ecologically viable. The book is printed on plastic polymers that can be recycled ad infinitum with no loss of quality—and it’s waterproof to boot. The nontoxic inks can be washed off in a safe chemical process and then reused. The cover is made from a heavier polymer, ensuring that the entire book can be easily dissolved and then reformed as a high-grade polymer.

In the cradle-to-cradle model, also called biomimicry, products don’t get recycled so much as they get reincarnated. All the by-products of the manufacturing process become usable in the creation of still more products, whether biological or industrial. For example, McDonough and Braungart designed an upholstery fabric that is not only environmentally friendly but also nourishing—literally. Because it has no toxic dyes, you can use it as compost or throw it directly on the soil to decompose. Plus, the wastewater from the fabric’s production emerges from the factory as clean as it came in.

Braungart and McDonough envision an industrial sector based on natural principles, in which “buildings, like trees, produce more energy than they consume and purify their own waste water.” This is not merely the whimsical vision of overeducated tree-huggers. Their remodel of Ford Motor Company’s 1,100-acre Rouge River plant in Dearborn, Michigan, designed for implementation over the next two decades, will make this vision a reality. The 450,000 square-foot campus will feature what will be the world’s largest living roof, which will provide natural habitat for migrating birds and wildlife, decrease the building’s energy costs, and protect the factory from UV degradation.

Zero waste
“The recycling movement is … emerging into the goal of zero waste,” says Neil Seldman, president of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. “It’s no longer about how to recycle the waste stream but how to change the waste stream.” Turning waste into nourishment can begin at home, by buying responsibly produced goods and adopting a “precycling” vision. (See sidebar “Thinking Outside the Dumpster.”) Another obvious step toward zero waste is to transform organic waste into compost. About 25 percent of domestic garbage is organic matter—a wealth of untapped nutrients for our depleted soil. As it stands now, the waste normally goes into landfills, where it decomposes anaerobically and creates methane, a major contributor to global warming. Simply composting this green waste would contribute enormously to the country’s average waste diversion rates (the percent of trash diverted from the landfill), which currently hovers at a lackadaisical 27 percent. Fortunately, the idea has taken root—the number of municipal composting centers all over the country has grown from 651 in 1989 to 3,227 in 2002.

Both companies and individuals need to recognize one key thing: Sustainability is about making choices. To a certain extent, garbage is not inevitable—it’s a decision. Just sorting paper and plastics no longer suffices. Everyone needs to make a lifestyle choice that requires both creativity and a sincere commitment.

“We are our environment—there is no separation,” says Boulder, Colorado’s Eco-Cycle Community Outreach Director Linda Smith. “Recycling is part of our larger understanding of our economic system, our connection to our natural resources, and our environment. It may not be the biggest, most important action, given all the other daunting environmental problems we face, but it’s always going to be necessary.”

In truth, we can no longer afford to remain blissfully ignorant as we take out the garbage, never giving its future a second thought. EM Forster’s famous dictum, “only connect,” which referred to correlating our ideals with our lives, our “prose with our passion,” was his recipe for integrity. It applies as much to our environment as it does to our relationships, because we will only save what we love.

Thinking Outside the Dumpster

• Become brand savvy. Choose a company committed to the environment. According to Linda Smith of Eco-Cycle in Boulder, Colorado, there are two questions to ask. “The first is does the company handle its own operations in an environmental way, such as their energy supply and their recycling,” she says. “The other side of the coin is whether the product or service comes in responsible packaging or even if the company offers to take back the product after its life is over, as some computer manufacturers are starting to do.”
• Don’t just recycle—precycle. Precycling is thinking about the life cycle of the product—and its packaging—before you buy. It might mean not buying certain things because of their excessive packaging, like single-serve portions and individual bottles of water. For some people, precycling could translate to buying in bulk whenever possible. For others, it could mean essentially buying less, buying used, or going without, if the packaging is particularly obnoxious.
• When you do come to the end of a product’s utility for you, don’t just dispose of it. An organization called Freecycle provides an online forum to match people getting rid of stuff with people who want it. Founded in 2003 by Deron Beal, the group has more than a million members scattered around the country (check out www.freecycle.orgfor more information).
• Start where you are. Thinking too cosmically about the endless stream of garbage each one of us creates can cause feelings of guilt, inadequacy, and even paralysis—the oh-what’s-the-use effect. Instead of being overwhelmed by all that you’re not doing, take the just-one-thing approach. Go slowly and do what you can—don’t drive yourself crazy trying to do everything at once.
• Green living does not require scarcity. “We can live in a world that meets our needs, and it doesn’t mean we have to sit in a cold, dark room without pleasure,” says Smith. “People need to see their connection to the system and figure it out for themselves. If you see the connection, your life changes.”