10 Slices
Medium 9781626560246

Chapter 7 The Science of Recycling

Szaky, Tom Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

Chapter 7

© TerraCycle

© 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.

See All Chapters
Medium 9781626560246

Chapter 1 Where the Modern Idea of Garbage Originated

Szaky, Tom Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

Chapter 1

© Apic/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

© aastock/Shutterstock.com

Human refuse—“garbage”—is a modern idea that arose out of our desire to chronically consume stuff that is made from ever more complex, man-made materials.

To outsmart waste we need to eliminate the very idea of waste; to do so we need to understand where the concept of waste came from and what factors brought about its existence.

Why is it that garbage exists in the human system but not more broadly in nature? Nature is a beautiful harmony of systems whereby every system’s output is a useful input for other systems. An acorn that falls from a tree is an important input for a squirrel that eats it. The by-product of that delicious meal—the squirrel’s poop—is an important input for the microbes that consume it. The output of the microbes—rich humus and soil—is in turn the very material from which a new oak tree may grow. Even the carbon dioxide that the squirrel exhales is what that tree may inhale. This cycle is the fundamental reason why life has thrived on our planet for millions of years. It’s like the Ouroboros—the ancient symbol depicting a serpent eating its own tail; in a way, nature truly is a constant cycle of consuming itself.

See All Chapters
Medium 9781626560246

Chapter 3 Our Primary Global Solution to Waste: Bury It

Szaky, Tom Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

Chapter 3

© Kaband/Shutterstock.com

© Vladimir Jotov/Shutterstock.com

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.

See All Chapters
Medium 9781626560246

Contents

Szaky, Tom Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub
Medium 9781626560246

Chapter 5 The Hierarchy of Waste

Szaky, Tom Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

Chapter 5

© PJHpix/Shutterstock.com

© Magicoven/Shutterstock.com

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.

See All Chapters

See All Slices