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Chapter 7 The Science of Recycling

Tom Szaky Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

Chapter 7

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© TerraCycle

Because the waste problem represents more than 11 billion tons per year on a global basis,1 the fundamental solution to all that waste needs to be on an industrial scale. On such a monumental scale, it is hard to leverage the intention and the form of an object. Reuse and recycling would really have their work cut out for them, and it is much easier to focus just on composition. That is where recycling comes in.

Recycling has been in full force since the dawn of the Bronze Age (3300 BCE). Metals have always been difficult commodities to come by, and there is evidence of bronze and other metals being collected in Europe and melted down for perpetual reuse.2 This behavior was tied entirely to the economics of waste. It was very expensive to harvest new bronze from rock and significantly easier to just melt down a broken bronze object and make something new.

During the Industrial Revolution, the need for metals was enormous, and metal recycling was in full force. Just imagine how much metal it took to build the railroads that crisscross Europe and North America. During World War II, the US government urged citizens to conserve as much as they could in terms of energy, food, materials, and other essentials. Citizens were encouraged to donate metals to the war effort—helping forge everything from bullets to tanks. The culture of recycling, unlike conservation, stayed in effect after the war.

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Chapter 2 The Role of the Individual Purchase

Tom Szaky Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

Chapter 2

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When looking at the root cause of garbage, we as consumers bear a large part of the responsibility. Garbage is predicated on our individual consumption. If we don’t buy something, it can never become garbage.

The manufacturers that make our products are here to serve the desires of consumers (you and me). Sure, by marketing to our desires they may influence what we want—or even introduce things we never knew we wanted—but in the end we are the individuals who pull the trigger and trade our money for those goods. No one is forcing us to buy anything. By contrast we voluntarily, and in fact willingly, buy things on a daily basis. We even gain pleasure in the act of buying. Consider the recent emergence of “retail therapy,” a pop-culture concept promoting the act of shopping as a way to beat depression.

Consumerism, in a way, is something of an addiction. We almost need to consume; we are constantly chasing after the next new thing (or high, for the sake of this metaphor), and our appetite to consume is never satisfied. One key difference between global consumerism and individual addiction is that this destructive habit doesn’t just harm our individual bodies; it affects our planet in a real way.

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Chapter 3 Our Primary Global Solution to Waste: Bury It

Tom Szaky Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

Chapter 3

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When I was a child, I had a pet rabbit that lived in a large cage on our apartment balcony. Every day I would feed her the vegetable peelings from our kitchen; she would happily eat them, later pooping out whatever her body didn’t use as spherical, pearl-like droppings in one corner of her cage. She would spend the rest of her time hanging out, dreaming perhaps about nice boy rabbits, in another corner of the cage. I never once saw her venture near the “poop corner” unless she had some specific business to do. Come to think of it, if I were that rabbit, I probably wouldn’t either.

The desire to be as far away from one’s own waste as possible seems to be hardwired in us. Landfills constantly face NIMBY (“not in my backyard”) challenges when getting zoned, and property values are lower near sewage treatment facilities, landfills, and composting sites. People simply don’t like hanging out near waste. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why we invented the toilet. If you deconstruct what a toilet is, beyond being a nice ceramic seat, it’s a device whose purpose is to move our waste far away from us as fast as mechanically possible.

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Chapter 5 The Hierarchy of Waste

Tom Szaky Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

Chapter 5

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From the macro perspective, we see garbage as a phenomenal volume of mixed complex materials and primarily useless outputs whose creation is driven by our chronic consumerism. If we are looking for the true value in garbage, it is best to look at garbage from the micro perspective—a perspective that looks at the makeup of garbage—and dissect what a single piece of garbage really is.

Let’s use the example of a “disposable” coffee cup. First, it is important to make the distinction between a new and a used coffee cup. Both are coffee cups, but one has positive value: a coffee shop would buy a new cup to serve you that venti chai latte. The other cup—the used one—has negative value (a coffee shop would not buy it back from you). Once you’ve indulged in your drink, you will most likely put the cup in a garbage can (as coffee cups are not recyclable in today’s recycling systems due to the plastic coating on the inside), the owner of which will have to pay for that coffee cup to be transported to a nearby landfill or incinerator.

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Chapter 9 The Economics of Outsmarting Waste

Tom Szaky Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

Chapter 9

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The main reason why waste is sent to landfills and incinerators and why few of our outputs are recycled (like they technically can be) is all tied up in the economics of waste. It is simply more expensive to collect and recycle most things than the results are worth, and it’s cheap—because we allow it to be cheap—to send waste to a landfill or an incinerator.

Because our world is so economically motivated, perhaps we can make outsmarting waste more attractive by speaking the language of economics. There are hidden economic benefits of investing in the process of outsmarting waste on several different levels. Like the whole of outsmarting waste, these benefits can begin with you at home.

Although outsmarting waste may require an investment of your time, every aspect should save you money. If you don’t buy unnecessary items, you can save money for something more important. Packaged processed food tends to be more expensive then unpackaged fresh foods. Durable products, even though they may cost more initially, will last longer than disposables and should save you money over the long term. Buying used instead of new will also leave a few extra bucks in your pocket.

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