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Recycling Our Idea of Recycling


“This is a rubber duck. It comes in California with a warning: ‘This product contains chemicals known by the state of California to cause cancer and birth defects or other reproductive harm.’ What kind of culture would produce a product of this kind, and then label it, and sell it to children? I think we have a design problem.”

This is how US architect William McDonough began his 2005 TED talk about cradle to cradle design. McDonough wrote the book on this type of design–literally. It’s called Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, and he co-authored it with Michael Braungart, a German chemist.

The cradle-to-cradle approach to design McDonough advocates involves mimicking nature in order to reduce waste to zero. It’s meant to replace the old approach to design, which would be cradle to grave (i.e. landfill).

Toward the end of his talk, McDonough showed three slides, one featuring a carpet, one a car, and the third a pair of sneakers. The carpet is designed to be infinitely recyclable. The car and the sneakers each contain components that are either reusable in new products or biodegradable.

Cradle to cradle.

In 2004, Canada recycled 27% of its waste, and the US recycled 32.5% in 2008. The situation in both countries has improved since then, but over half of North America’s waste still goes to landfills and incinerators.

Clearly, our current efforts to recycle aren’t enough. To survive, society cannot pursue its current path of endless economic expansion. Not on a planet with limited resources. We need to make global civilization into something that resembles and complements natural cycles.

How do we do that?

Well, improving our recycling programs may be a good place to start. For that, we might look to the McMurdo Scientific Research Station in Antarctica, where they have one of the most comprehensive recycling programs in the world.

Image credit:

They even recycle dreams.

The lack of resources and landfills in Antarctica has resulted in a robust culture of recycling at McMurdo. Everything has to be flown in by plane, which is also the only way anything leaves. So they’ve learned to recycle and reuse–again and again. The rest of the world would do well to follow their lead.

But we won’t attain recycling nirvana just by waiting for recycling program to catch up to where they need to be. It’s also up to us, as (shudder) consumers to make a concerted effort to buy products that are made from recycled materials and also packaged in recycled materials. On, Ashok Kamal comes up with a term for this: “completing the loop”. He calls on small businesses in particular to provide recycled alternatives to local customers, who can then frequent these businesses, thereby pressuring larger corporations to adopt similar practices.

Image credit: flickr user San Jose Library

It’s also important that people actually have incentives to recycle. Believe it or not, posts such as this one, in which relatively obscure bloggers insist that recycling is the right thing to do, do not always constitute the best method of actually getting people to recycle.

Reports such as the one written about here help move recycling along a little further. That report found that a 75% national recycling rate in the US would create 2.3 million jobs by 2030, in that country alone.

Services like Recyclebank are helping to create financial incentives to recycle. Recyclebank, a company based in New York City, rewards those who take positive action on environmental issues with coupons from local and national businesses.

But many individuals recognize that there are already major financial incentives to getting into the reduce/reuse/recycle mindset. It’s pretty straightforward: making a habit of both reducing the amount you consume and repurposing things you already own will inevitably save you money.

Some people take recycling to extremes. For instance, there are people who make a living entirely from things they retrieve from dumpsters, as outlandish as that may seem. (The fact that I don’t find it outlandish at all may help explain why I write a blog called Batshite.)

The point is, in order to make the practice of recycling into what we need it to be, we’re going to have to be highly creative. To emphasize that, I’m going to end this post with a few of my favourite recycling-oriented projects. Enjoy.

  • Films on Fridges – a movie theater made from recycled refrigerators
  • Recycled Metal Statues – stunning sculptures constructed from car and motorcycle parts
  • Salvius – an autonomous robot made from recycled parts
  • Junk Castle – a castle built by a high school teacher for his Master of Fine Arts thesis, from less than $500 worth of garbage
  • N+ew Seats – stools made out of e-waste: “computers, plastic cases, electronic cards, hard disks, speakers, kilometers of cables,etc.”

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. 02/24/2012 3:42 PM

    As an addition, here’s a great blog post about the problems associated with being a “throwaway society”:

  2. John Erickson permalink
    02/24/2012 9:24 PM

    Hey, don’t get too eager turning those car parts into art. I may need some of them for my old cars! :D
    One of my classic gripes is the grocery bag. I packed groceries into paper bags many decades ago. Then paper went away, “to save the trees”, in favor of plastic. Now plastic is going away in favor of cloth. How much longer before we hit paper again? (Yes, I know, paper is actually becoming an option, even way out here in the wilds of Ohio. ;) )
    I’ll refrain from my “old man rant” about stuff being unnecessarily made from plastic, instead of wood and metal. It’s a Friday, you don’t need that level of aggravation.

    • 03/16/2012 9:59 PM

      I’ll keep you in mind if I ever have spare car parts!

      I think paper is a fairly green option. Trees are a renewable resource, and hence, I think, the least of our worries.

      I’m replying to this almost a month later, and it’s still a Friday!

  3. Andrea permalink
    02/24/2012 11:05 PM

    It’s not just about giving people incentives to recycle… we also have to dis-incentivize NOT recycling. A basic rule about behaviour change is that people go for the new option when it becomes too difficult to stick with the old option. We don’t change our minds the moment we notice the new thing, we first have to find the old thing costly, ineffective, inefficient, inconvenient, etc. This is why people don’t readily give up their cars despite rising gas prices. Yes, it’s more expensive than taking public transit, but it’s still more convenient. So what can be done to make the existing option (choosing trash rather than blue bin) much less appealing than it currently is?

    • 03/16/2012 9:58 PM

      That’s a good point. It’s hard to make not recycling less palatable, other than restating the consequences. The only thing I can think of is making recycling programs mandatory, and imposing a fine for not participating.

  4. Raven Warren permalink
    02/26/2012 8:21 AM

    Reuse. Recycle. Rewards :)

    I like the idea of the stools made from recycled e-waste. Geez, Trev alone could create enough to furnish a small school! There’s also a man down the road that makes art with collected waste, and they’re beautiful. We have a plane!

    • 03/16/2012 9:54 PM

      Cool, I didn’t know that! You should introduce me!

      Sounds like Trevor might have the makings of a business, there ;)

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