When I was a kid I learned that recycling was the ultimate, everyday individual environmental contribution. This is still a view shared by many; after finishing that juice carton we send it down the right bin, putting our environmental consciousness at ease so we can go our merry way, confident in that we are doing our job in saving the planet. Well, I’m sorry to say, but that is simply not true.
Stop thinking of recycling as an environmental success, because it’s not.
The EU Directive on Waste dictates a very clear hierarchy for waste management, where prevention is the preferred choice. Followed by preparation for reuse, recycling, other recovery methods (e.g. energy recovery through incineration) and last disposal. Recycling is not on top of this hierarchy, it actually ranks as the third option. Why? Recycling is a complicated and energy demanding process that usually does not maintain individual material qualities. Most things that go into recycling are a material mix that could only be separated with complicated mechanical and chemical processes, only to then be downcycled to lesser materials. For example, a plastic bottle can be cascaded into a lower value application, like fabric, but the fabric can not become a bottle again. This lower value application is usually not recyclable again after use, so it gets incinerated which is NOT recycling. Burning waste to recover energy is clearly unsustainable! Yet, it still happens to a great deal of the waste we sort and collect for recycling, with numbers being as high as 48% (of household waste) in Sweden. And even worse, if all of that fails, much of recyclable material ends up in a landfill where it will take roughly 500 years for the plastic to degrade or it ends up in our oceans, where the estimation today is that there will be more plastics than fish in 2050.
There is clearly a need for new approaches here. Recycling still has a place in the circular economy of the future, but we need to stop praising it as the end-solution. It is just one step towards a more respectful relationship with our resources. Instead, as designers and product developers, we should understand the complexities of recycling, amplify the things that work, and think of alternatives for its negative aspects. Here are some starters:
Public Awareness on Recycling
Unsustainable materials and recycling methods exist not just because shortcomings in industry and state planning, but also because of the lack of public awareness. As Leyla Acarogulo points out, our false understanding of recycling leads to a false good conscience, which creates a negative rebound effect. In fact, the amount of disposable products being produced (and discarded) is increasing.
Today’s false impression about recycling validates disposability.
So we need to understand three things:
Recycling is a cost and energy expensive process.
Not everything that goes into the recycling bin is recycled to a material of matching quality, or even recycled at all.
Few products that can be produced solely based on recycled materials; most require virgin materials to be added.
Perhaps another part of achieving this awareness is to review how we use words and terminology. The term consumer is complicated when it comes to sustainability. We can consume food, clothes and other biological materials, but can we really consume technical products, or are we just using them? Being users instead of consumers signals that we merely borrow resources instead of treating them as disposables.
Material Sensibility in Product Design
If you are in the position where you can affect how products are being designed and produced, learn about material properties and how materials degrade over time. Even though you as the product maker don't own the post-product lifecycle, you can use materials diligently and work with strategies, like product modularity and avoidance of inseparable multi-materials, to prepare for later disassembly. These adaptations have to be in place to make repairing, remanufacturing and even recycling possible. After all (and despite our earlier ranting), recycling is not always bad. For instance, recycling aluminium costs only down to 5% of the energy that it takes to make virgin aluminium. In these cases it clearly makes sense to prepare for an after-life of recycling. However, products are rarely designed for those materials to be recovered in clean fractions. We should design products not to be consumed, but to be used! Making it easy for materials, components, and subassemblies to be cleanly separated again, enables us to preserve the maximum resources and embedded work as possible. After-Life management might still be crude compared to the sophisticated production processes. But as the value of resources is growing, it is just a matter of time for more elegant and efficient after-life processes to emerge - and your products should be ready for those. Apple is striving to close the loop of their supply chain and started a take back program for their devices. Once returned, the devices are disassembled by sophisticated robots, making it possible to reuse valuable components, balancing out some of the asymmetry in the life cycle of our technical resources.
Compostable Bio Materials
Composting is usually not part of the recycling debate, but perhaps it should be. In centuries of evolution, natural ecosystems have solved the problem of downcycling. Dead plants become the soil that nurtures growing new plants, with no energy loss in the process, effectively upcycling its own waste. So it only makes sense to design and engineer products and packaging out of materials that can be plugged into this effective system. Ecovative and their use of the mycelium fungus are a good example of this. The fungus grows around agricultural waste to fill whatever mold that surrounds it and through that process a solid fibrous product is created. The resulting material does not degrade without exposure to living organisms, like soil biota, but when you are done using your mushroom product you can put it in your compost, or garden, and it will naturally decompose.
Creative Eco-Innovation in packaging
Decreasing the amount of waste that a product causes even before disposal would lighten the burden on our recycling system. After all, waste prevention is the number one directive. Packaging is important to keep a product intact during shipping but serves no purpose afterwards, so it is thrown away. What if instead, packaging was designed to stay useful in storing the product safely afterwards, as this project by Packground for Fjällräven showcases.
Taking it one step further, the packaging can actually be the product itself. Waarmakers has designed a lamp in which the cardboard role that is used for shipping is assembled as part of the luminary.
Resources that we already extracted and processed should loop in the economy for as long as possible. For that to come to reality there is a need to incentivize people and companies to value the materials we created. The plastic bank does this in a very elegant way by putting a monetary value on waste. This way they combine cleaning up the ocean with turning plastic into a currency, empowering local communities - all built on blockchain technologies. This shows another important role of recycling. Where we have failed to take care of and value resources in the past, we can use recycling as an afterlife method to keep or reinsert materials into the life-cycle.
So please, stop thinking of recycling as an environmental success, because just on its own, it’s not. When we develop new products in the future, we need to have a more educated and sustainable approach to the way we use our resources.
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Written by Johanna Tunlid, Sustainability Manager, and Felix Heibeck, UX Design Technologist
Illustrations & Motion Graphics by Abovers Thuy Nguyen, Zhi Wang, Felix Heibeck