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Recycling is so 20th Century. What Do You Say We Just Forget All About It?

Publisher: Seventh Generation, April 30, 2007

Once the vanguard idea of modern environmentalism, recycling is getting a little long in the tooth. Recycling rates have leveled off in communities around the country, and increasing numbers of products and packages can’t be recycled at all. Couple that with a lack of any real public enthusiasm for recycling and the fact that recycling isn’t impacting the solid waste problem the way we need it to, and it’s clear that something else is needed.

To understand the need for something new and something better than recycling you only have to look at the numbers. Americans produce (yikes!) an average of 4.5 lbs. of trash per day per person. According to the EPA, this trash is composed of:

Paper (34.2%)
Yard Trimmings (13.1%)
Food Scraps (11.9%)
Plastics (11.8%)
Metals (7.6%)
Rubber, Leather, and Textiles (7.3%)
Glass (5.2%)
Wood (5.7%
Other: (3.4%)

Of the 4.5 lbs. of waste we each create each day, just 1.5 lbs. are recycled, which gives us a national recycling rate of only 32%. We recycle 99% of our auto batteries, 62% of our steel cans, and 50% of our paper and cardboard. But we only keep 44.8% of our aluminum cans, 34% of our plastic drink bottles, and 25% of our glass containers out of landfills. After 30 years of bottle bills, recycling programs, and 3R (reduce, reuse, recycle) advocacy, these are not impressive figures. Clearly something else is needed. And most solid waste experts believe that that something is zero waste.

Zero waste is just that, a system in which we never throw anything away. In a zero waste world, whenever any product is used or consumed, whatever is left over afterwards becomes the raw material for something new. Zero waste is a regenerative system, one that mimics the closed-loop systems used by nature in which all waste becomes food for other things.

Creating a zero waste society has been called the Next Industrial Revolution, and that’s no zealous overstatement because the task will call for nothing less than a complete remaking of the way we do just about everything. Every product will have to be reinvented, and because zero waste also refers to non-consumer wastes like factory pollution, every manufacturing process will need to be re-engineered. As zero waste guru William McDonough said in a recent issue of Fortune magazine, "We're not talking here about eliminating waste. We're talking about eliminating the entire concept of waste." That’s a daunting task, but it’s one that’s quite achievable.

A key idea of zero waste is the notion of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), which makes manufacturers responsible for product disposal and requires that they take back anything that remains once a product reaches the end of its useful lifespan, whether that lifespan is the time it takes to drink a soda or drive car 200,000 miles. EPR forces companies to become better designers and incorporate reuse into every component of every product. That may seem like a far-fetched notion, but many companies are already working on such systems and products. Recent initiatives like these represent zero waste’s first baby steps:

• In the European Union, appliance manufacturers are now required to take back their products from consumers when those products are no longer viable.
• Herman Miller’s famous Aeron Chair has a base made from recycled drink cans and is designed to be recycled itself.
• Nike collects old shoes and grinds them up to make athletic track and field surfaces.
• Hewlett Packard turns used printer ink cartridges into components for its Scanjet printers.
• Hewlett Packard and Dell Computer now take back every system they sell for disassembly and reuse in a program that has spurred both companies to redesign their products to make that reuse easier and more efficient.
• Stonyfield Farms accepts used yogurt cups, which are made into toothbrushes.
• Unilever is turning scrap packaging into park benches.
• Wal-Mart has launched a packaging initiative that uses a 9-point scorecard to rate suppliers on their packaging efficiency. Factors include how much recycled content was used and the product-to-packaging ratio. The goal is to reduce packaging by 5%, a small but nonetheless important amount given EPA data that says 30% of all municipal waste is packaging.

These are small steps forward, to be sure, but the trend lines are clear. Regenerative thinking is taking hold, and a zero waste world is coming. Until it arrives, there are plenty of things each of us can do to cut down on our personal waste streams:

Buy in bulk. Natural food stores and many grocery stores offer many staples in bulk. Just fill a bag with whatever you need and forgo wasteful packaging.
Avoid foods sold in individual serving sizes. Such products are packaging nightmares when compared to “family size” packages.
Refuse excessive packaging. Don’t buy products that come with more than they need. If you need an over-packaged product, take it out of the packaging right there at the register and hand the refuse to the clerk. Making it the store’s problem is a good way to encourage positive action.
Leave gimmicky products alone. Pump toothpastes, disposable toilet brushes, electric air fresheners, and other wasteful products represent marketing tomfoolery not consumer convenience.
Shop with an eye for recyclability. Check the packaging used by the products you buy. If that packaging can’t be recycled in your community, look for alternatives whose packaging can be.
Compost. Food scraps and yard wastes together account for about 25 % of the typical household waste stream. Put yours to better use as fertilizer for a healthy lawn and garden.
Get off junk mail lists at https://www.dmaconsumers.org/cgi/offmailing.
Stop the never ending mailbox flood of credit card offers at https://www.optoutprescreen.com/.
Use rechargeable batteries, which keep lots of their disposable cousins out of landfills.
Use compact fluorescent light bulbs, each one of which replaces 13 incandescent bulbs over its lifetime.
Buy so-called “durable goods” carefully. It’s generally true that you get what you pay for when it comes to appliances and other big ticket items. So buy the nicest model you can afford of whatever product you need. Chances are it will last far longer than cheaper models, which saves money and waste in the long run.
Close the recycling loop by buying products made from recycled materials. Look for the highest possible amount of post-consumer content.
Use reusable containers for lunches and leftovers. A serving bowl with a plate for a top is a great zero-waste storage solution for the fridge. And reusable containers trump plastic bags and wraps in the lunch box.
Use your computer to store documents virtually. Be very sparing about printing documents and make sure to use both sides of every sheet of printer paper when you do.
Move beyond paper, bottles, cans, and plastic, and recycling like a zealot! From clothes and cell phones to eyeglasses and appliances, there are plenty of places that will give your cast-offs a second life. Visit http://www.earth911.org/master.asp?s=ls&a=Recycle&cat=1 to find recycling resources for these and many other items in your community. Or try the Freecycle Network at http://www.newdream.org/consumer/freecycle.html. To find out where to recycle old electronics, consult http://www.electronicsrecycling.org/NCER/.

For more information about zero waste, visit the Grassroots Recycling Network at http://www.grrn.org/. For advice on consuming less, visit Use Less Stuff at http://cygnus-group.com/use-less-stuff/. The March 29th issue of Rachel's Democracy & Health News has an informative essay on zero waste from Paul Palmer. You’ll find it at http://www.rachel.org/bulletin/index.cfm?issue_ID=2601. Dr. Palmer has also written an excellent book on the subject called Getting to Zero Waste. See http://gettingtozerowaste.com/.

This article originally appeared in "The Non-Toxic Times," an e-newsletter published by Seventh Generation. Each month, Seventh Generation researches their extensive library and network of experts to bring you important tips, resources and news about the issues that affect the health of your home, family and the environment.

Seventh Generation offers a full selection of non-toxic household products for a clean home, a healthy family, and a safer world. They are committed to providing products that perform as well as conventional products, and are also safe and environmentally responsible. For valuable coupons and to subscribe to their e-newsletter, "The Non-Toxic Times," visit www.seventhgeneration.com

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