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I thought that people might like to see this article, which was sent out by a mail service known as Rachel's Democracy and Health News.
THE DEATH OF RECYCLING
By Paul Palmer, Ph.D
[ <http://gettingtozerowaste.com/> Paul Palmer hold a Ph.D. in Physical Chemistry from Yale. He is
interested in hearing from readers who may want to join him in
starting a new organization focused on zero waste. Contact him at
A little more than a year ago, an article entitled <http://www.grist.org/news/maindish/2005/01/13/doe-reprint/> The Death of
Environmentalism by Shellenberger and Nordhaus made a splash when it
claimed that environmentalists had become complacent, relying on their
time-honored methods of banning behaviors that they found
objectionable through political and judicial activism, rather than
through engaging the moral base of the American public. The critique
was applied to the looming crisis of global warming and seemed to
portend a gigantic failure if environmentalists did not embrace a new
awareness of public concern and participation and stop relying on
public policy correctness and technical fixes.
Shellenberger and Nordhaus noted the lack of inspiring visions to
energize the public. They went on to lament the smugness of officials
of environmental organizations who have become used to rich rewards in
salaries, grants, dues and acclaim from growing membership lists.
There is a movement for resource recapture that suffers from the same
defects. It has come to be called Recycling. Latterly it too has
become lazy, relying on yesterday's methods and advancing no new ideas
to inspire the public. The practitioners, while not profiting from
dues or grants nearly as much as the defenders of wildlife,
nevertheless have their own stultifying income source. They have
become used to income derived from the low grade collection of
garbage. Their method is to pick away at garbage streams recapturing
small amounts of smashed up lowgrade materials. Alternatively they
profit by exacting garbage dumping surcharges, resembling guilt taxes,
from the dumpers. They have formed close alliances with the garbage
industry, the two often being indistinguishable. Since no approach to
conservation that relies on harvesting garbage can ever threaten the
garbage paradigm, they have no way to inspire the public. They do
promote themselves mendaciously as being fundamentally opposed to
garbage, but that ideology is merely a holdover from a time when
recycling was young. The contradiction is disturbing to even casual
What would you think about a gigantic piece of the environmental
movement, involving trillions of dollars worth of resources annually
in this country alone, that environmentalists ignore? The way in which
resources are used to create products is exactly such an item. After
working in this field for thirty years, I have seen that
environmentalists are afraid to deal with industrial production
because they don't understand it. It seems like a technical subject
that they have no hope of getting a handle on. If a single resource is
badly harvested, like old growth trees, they will organize. If the
process produces an obvious pollution, they will demand regulation to
correct it. But there it stops. The way in which products are designed
specifically for waste is simply not on their screen.
In the United States, recycling as a theory of resource management
arose in the nineteen seventies. Since that time, no new theory or
even interpretation has been put forward until today. Three major
developments should be noted.
** First, the garbage industry realized that it could take over the
movement for recycling, turning it into a division of garbage
management, finally paying recyclers a surcharge to co-opt them.
** Second, the recyclers accepted the pre-eminence of the garbage
industry and dropped any notion of replacing or closing dumps.
** Third, a few progressive individuals and organizations began to
discuss a new resource management plan to which they gave the name
At some point, the recyclers, now working for garbage management, saw
that zero waste could become a slogan that appeared to the public to
be a higher theory of resources. Because of their immersion in the
recycling paradigm as an ultimate theory, they were actually unable to
put flesh on the bones of the zero waste approach, but they began to
spread the bare slogan. On the ground, nothing changed. The recyclers
went to a number of jurisdictions (several California cities
especially) and urged the cities to join them in putting forward the
facade of a new resource management plan, which a number of cities
did. In actuality, the new plans concerned Zero Waste in name only.
They proposed only more recycling.
How Does Zero Waste Differ From Recycling?
What should have been in such plans, that would have revealed a truly
new theory of resource conservation? The essence of the new synthesis
can be summed up in one pregnant phrase: redesign for reuse. But what
kind of redesign for what kind of reuse? That is where the new theory
flexes its muscles.
The basic problem that has always plagued recycling is that it accepts
garbage creation as fundamental. Zero waste strategies reject garbage
creation as a failure, actually an abomination that threatens the
planet, an historical accident, a politically motivated defect in the
design of our industrial-commercial system of production. Zero waste
actually goes deeper in that it rejects waste of every kind at every
stage of production. Zero waste demands that all products be
redesigned so that they produce no waste at all and furthermore, that
the production processes (a kind of product in themselves because they
too are carefully designed) also produce no waste. Zero waste at no
point interfaces with garbage but rather simply looks beyond it. In
the theory of zero waste, once all waste is eliminated, there will be
no garbage, no need for any garbage collection, no garbage industry
and no dumps. All that superstructure of garbage management will fade
away as simply irrelevant.
The currently operative theory of recycling is entirely different. It
contemplates the continual, even perpetual collection of garbage and
then attempts to find innovative ways to reuse the maximum part of
that garbage. In the current jargon, recycling is an end-of-pipe
theory. Zero waste is a redesign theory. Because end-of-pipe
approaches are necessarily inefficient and difficult (since products
were never designed for reuse) the best that recycling is able to hold
out for in most cases is destruction of products after one use
(through smashing, chopping, grinding, etc.) and the laborious
recapture of only the bare materials. Thus the common recycling
obsession with steel, aluminum, paper, glass and plastic, ignoring
fifty thousand additional common chemicals, plastics, metals, glasses,
minerals etc. It is no exaggeration to say that recycling has no
comment on the vast majority of products, processes and materials,
while zero waste has solutions or improved practices to offer for
every single product, production process, material and (current)
waste. In addition, zero waste offers a compelling spirituality as it
elevates the conservation of our one precious planet to the level of a
holy creed and demands that our design for resources usage reflects
Recyclers also try to find last-minute ways of reuse, such as is done
by thrift shops, by turning junk into artwork or by construction reuse
yards which resell doors, windows, sinks and more. While a single
piece reused is indeed a victory, these are again end-of-pipe
enterprises which probably account for less than 1% of all discards.
Zero waste seeks to elevate reuse into an integral part of the design
of 100% of all of these products.
In the new zero waste theory, products are designed from the start to
be reused over and over. After many uses, including repairs,
rebuilding, remanufacturing etc., disassembly into materials may
become necessary for a step that resembles recycling, but even at this
last stage, the reuse of materials has been carefully designed into
the original product, planning for it in many critical ways. Thus even
when zero waste comes down to the reuse of component materials, it
does so in a way that is sharply different from an end-of-pipe method.
For example, zero waste principles strongly recommend against the
lamination or joining of different materials in an indissoluble bond
unless the lamination can be reused as lamination, or disassembled.
All parts must be well identified by markings and history, not
something to be guessed at with inadequate symbols (like the recycling
labels on plastic) of such generality that they convey little
information of any use. Extensive information about every part, every
piece, every material will be key, using every tool of modern
information tracking such as radio frequency tags (rfid's), bar codes,
public specifications and the internet. Recyclers, by contrast, have
no response to difficult items like laminations except to toss them
into a dump, as non-recyclable.
If zero waste thinking is new to you, you may be wondering how all of
this can be done. In my book, <http://www.amazon.com/Getting-Zero-Waste-Paul-Palmer/dp/0976057107/ref=sr_1_1/002-5585451-2353662?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1175031276&sr=1-1> Getting To Zero Waste, I detail many
practical applications that are simple and straightforward even in
this world of production dedicated to waste. As one simple example,
repair has all but faded away. Repair of electronic and other
technical instruments has been replaced with discard followed by
purchase of a new, cheap product from China. But why did repair become
so economically disfavored? For electronics, four major reasons were
** Circuit diagrams were generally unobtainable, necessitating a
constant series of educated guesses.
** When circuit diagrams were obtained, they were filled with arcane,
uninterpretable proprietary symbols. Even a simple resistor could be
** Parts, including simple mechanical ones, were not grouped into
standard, interchangeable assemblies such as a standard circuit board
or a tape loading mechanism.
** Lastly, parts themselves became unavailable, sometimes after a few
months or at most after a few years.
Look at this list! The needed changes leap off the page at you. Begin
by demanding, under pain of not being allowed to sell product, that
every single circuit diagram must be published openly on the web, for
all to see. Then demand that all symbols used on the diagrams must be
publicly understandable and explained. Insist that repair shops be
established, or certified, for every group of products or by every
manufacturer. Require long-term availability of parts. This is only
the beginning, yet it shows the narrow end of a funnel opening up to a
revolution in reparability.
Even products that the recyclers have no clue how to reuse or even
think about are commonplace for zero waste strategizing. I worked
successfully and easily in chemical reuse for thirty years. The
recyclers have never had any ideas to offer except fear, bans and
urging users to discard chemicals into dumps. The software industry
depends critically on reuse of its intellectual creations, yet the
recyclers have only the trivial focus on the paper or discs that are
used for storage of software.
Why have the designers been able to design waste so cavalierly into
their products? A large part of the answer is the ready availability
of a subsidized dump. As we get further into a zero waste society,
dumps will not only become unnecessary but as soon as any zero waste
solution can be applied, the dump can be legally put off limits. When
there is no eternally welcoming dump for a product, there will be no
alternative to designing for perpetual reuse.
Necessarily, this is only a hint of a long discussion. Are there too
many products and designs for you to contemplate? Simple, establish
Zero Waste Divisions in the Engineering Departments of every
university. Obviously this author, or a hundred like him, are not
going to be able to subject every product to a deep analysis with
solutions. That is the function of research. Let us give employment to
thousands of industrial redesigners, chemical engineers, biologists,
fermentation technicians and every other kind of professional. The
kinds of jobs found in the garbage industry are not worth hanging on
to, compared to the brand new jobs needed for innovative, intelligent
and responsible design of products for perpetual reuse. Design for
responsibility should create a flood of new patents, protecting
designs which can then spread worldwide as brand new businesses carry
the message around the globe that the Age of Garbage has ended.
By now the reader can see that zero waste differs from recycling
approaches in an important way: its intellectual roots. Recycling is a
simple notion, hardly more complicated than the dumping of garbage
into a hole in the ground. Simply find some component of the garbage
being collected and divert it into a (usually existing) alternate
process as a raw material. True, recycling encounters many political
problems needing to be solved, collection and diversion systems to be
designed, as well as the difficulties of introducing mixed or
contaminated materials to a processing system used to completely
refined and "clean" raw materials. Engineering and scientific
professionals play almost no role. Zero waste, on the other hand,
essentially requires high level redesign. Every product being made
needs to be designed under a brand new constraint -- the disappearance
of easy discard. Chemical products will require chemists and chemical
engineers. Other technical products will likewise require help from
other professionals. Contamination will be fundamentally unacceptable.
Hopefully the reader begins to see the outlines of a new paradigm
which will make garbage creation obsolete. Yet it is only common sense
applied to production. We have come back to a tenet of <http://www.grist.org/news/maindish/2005/01/13/doe-reprint/> The Death of
Environmentalism -- the one that laments the lack of inspiration. Is
it not an inspiring vision to demand that rational design be applied
to reuse? Is the complete elimination of garbage and dumping not a
vision that ordinary people can seize and insist on? In another
hundred years, people will read with disbelief that in the twenty-
first century, industry actually designed products for a single use,
then to be smashed and buried underground. That will seem to be a
story about Neanderthal behavior.
I have had to digress to explain zero waste so that the reader will be
able to understand the most recent developments.
All design work takes place in a universe of broadly shared
assumptions. These include the availability and cost of materials, the
price of robots or labor, consumer acceptance, etc. Sometimes the
intended use controls everything, such as with high end research
equipment or racing yachts. But there is one assumption that always
pervades the entire design process -- waste is to be expected and it
costs practically nothing.
Eliminate this one assumption of wasting and the whole design process
will be turned on its head. Time-honored methods of designing for
cheap assembly and quick obsolescence will themselves need to be
discarded. Instead, quality components, expertly assembled will be the
norm and the design will necessarily become one for perpetual repair,
refurbishment, upgrading, reuse of every part and every function.
The recyclers also like to talk about an end to dumps. So how does
this vision differ from theirs?
One can reasonably say that recycling and reuse has always been with
us. We wash our clothes hundreds of times; we do not throw them out
after one use. We repair our automobiles endlessly. Home Depot counts
on the fact that we will fix up our houses. We patch roads. Since
airplanes can never be allowed to fall out of the sky due to
obsolescence, the airplane industry maintains a kind of zero waste
attitude, constantly repairing and downgrading for decades. Yet in
spite of these conservative attitudes, garbage dumping exploded in the
last century and is still growing. Various studies claim that
Americans account for many tons of garbage for every pound of product
they buy. The recycling approach has clearly failed to stanch this
torrent of garbage.
More troubling is the development over the last thirty years of a
close, symbiotic relationship between the methods of the garbage
industry and the recycling movement. When recyclers seek inputs of
materials, they primarily employ collection methods based on discard.
Classically, they simply task the garbage collector to set out one
more green or blue or red container next to his garbage can. The
result is predictable -- the public frames recycling as tantamount to
garbage collection and treats it with disdain. Households have no idea
which container to use for what and everything gets mixed up. If there
is any doubt, it is understood that recycling is just garbage anyway
so what difference can it make which can is used? The recyclers
themselves go along with the garbage company pleas and accept the
nonsensical notion that everything can all be mixed together (i.e.
making garbage) and then sorted out later.
The public acceptance of waste comes from two sources. First, the
unconcerned public have come to accept the canard that garbage is
natural. They support the whole superstructure of subsidized dumps and
profitable garbage collection. We hear that "you have to put it
somewhere"; "just get rid of it" and we treat garbage as a social
"service". Second, the only claim to a popular alternative is the
recycling one, which in turn supports garbage to the hilt. The
developing crisis in planetary resources will force the abandonment of
both of these defective notions.
Recyclers have recently begun to create analyses claiming to be based
on zero waste. Many of these claim to be aware that zero waste is not
just more recycling. However, despite the good words, not one of them
presents any programs, projects or ideas which go beyond mere
recycling or challenge the primacy of garbage. This is not an
accident. The close relationship to garbage methods contaminates the
analysis. These erroneous writings are easily available on the web
under the name of various cities and counties, especially in
California, that have adopted putative zero waste resolutions. These
include Palo Alto, San Francisco, Oakland and Nevada County. It is
essential that newcomers not accept every program that calls itself
"zero waste" as part of the new paradigm.
Even without its crippling association with the garbage industry,
recycling suffers from a crippling constriction of goals. At its best,
the ideology of recycling has always been limited to an enervating
focus on the dump! Because it has never transcended its early
ideology, which was forged in the 1960's and early '70's, recycling
has never claimed to do more than target the elimination of dumps, yet
even this modest goal is unattainable by recycling. Even if recycling
were amazingly effective, taking out 90% of some material which was
heading to the dump (no project is close to this effectiveness), ten
percent would still go into the dump on every cycle. After about eight
cycles, virtually the entire load of original material will be sitting
at the bottom of a dump and it is only new, virgin materials which are
still circulating. In the case of aluminum cans, the project that
recyclers like to point at with pride, about fifty percent of the
aluminum ends up in the dump on each cycle and the typical cycle is
about three months long. At the end of a year, just about the whole
load of aluminum is found in the dump and all the cans in circulation
are made of new material which will likewise soon be residing in the
dump. No wonder the garbage industry is hardly shaking in its shoes
over the success of recycling. The deficiencies of recycling are even
worse than this. As I said earlier, recycling entirely overlooks the
processes that call for the materials that it is concerned with. So
the processes can continue to be as wasteful as a waste oriented
society can make them. Instead of a tightly designed process, we find
them designed in a lazy way to create, for example, chemical excesses
for which recyclers can find no use. No problem: our society reserves
portions of soil, water and air by regulation that are good for
nothing but being polluted. So long as the regulations are followed,
pollution is accepted. But who is to question why unusable excesses
are produced in the first place? Recycling makes no objection, while
zero waste thinking demands that cheap disposal eventually be
eliminated and that wasteful practices be redesigned to function
without the benefit of the welcoming dump.
Consider now the enormous waste of designing products to be fragile,
breakable, trashy, lightweight and with signature, critically weak
parts inside. This practice is part of the strategy called "planned
obsolescence". When the pieces immediately break, the recyclers may be
standing by to snatch some of the materials, but how does that compare
to a product that is so well designed for reuse that only a tenth as
much raw material ends up passing through the industrial meatgrinder?
Only a fraction as much energy has to be used. Only a fraction as much
soil exhaustion is caused in extracting the natural resources that go
into the product. And remember that among those natural resources is
food for the humans working in the factory as well as fuel for their
transportation and the resources for their education, entertainment
and all the rest of life. That can all be minimized by repairing and
refurbishing the products endlessly. The recycler, by contrast,
accepts this wasting as natural, so long as a portion of the bare
materials are captured for reuse at the last moment.
The conceptual analysis which ties up all the loose ends is functional
reuse. This means the reuse of the highest function of every product,
not the lowest materials. For example, the unfortunately classical
method of recycling a glass bottle is to destroy its function. As a
container, its function is to contain. The fact that it is made from a
nearly valueless glass material is of virtually no interest. Yet the
recycler will gleefully abandon the valuable function for the
valueless material and crow about his success. This is a serious
failure of design. The common-sense way that zero waste approaches
this reuse is by using the containment function -- by refilling the
bottle. All of the value is recaptured and there is no reason to
transport broken glass across the country, remelt it, fill it in a
distant factory and ship it back to where it started.
Recycling claims to save energy, but this is by and large an empty
claim, Recycling actually is a way to insure that energy is wasted for
no reason. Zero waste already shows the way to recapture almost 100%
of the energy, by refilling, so why are we still smashing bottles?
Only because garbage fleets demand methods which make use of their
core capability -- hauling heavy loads around the country, no matter
whether to a dump or a recycling facility.
Functional reuse is a broad general principle that applies to every
single product made anywhere. Not to ten or twenty percent of the
contaminated materials in a garbage can, but to everything. It is only
from working with inherent functions that new patents and new
worldwide businesses can emerge.
One estimate says that industry produces seventy-one times as much
garbage as households, while producing the products we want. A
theory that ignores 98.5% of a problem no longer commands respect.
The conclusion is inescapable. Recycling has had its day and is now
moribund. Those of us concerned about the destruction of the earth
need to adopt a new, healthier understanding of the real world. That
new synthesis is Zero Waste.
Paul Palmer wants to hear from readers who may want to join him in
starting a new organization focused on zero waste. Contact him at
 <http://www.grrn.org/> Grassroots Recycling Network
 Eric Lombardi, Boulder <http://www.ecocycle.org/ZeroWaste/index.cfm> http://www.ecocycle.org/Zer
 Paul Palmer, Getting To Zero Waste, <http://gettingtozerowaste.com/> http://gettingt
 Brenda Platt and Neil Seldman, <http://www.grrn.org/assets/pdfs/wasting/WRUS.pdf> Wasting and Recycling in the
United States 2000, pg. 18, citing Office of Technology Assessment,
Managing Industrial Solid Wastes from manufacturing, mining, oil, and
gas production, and utility coal combustion (OTA-BP-O-82), February
1992, pp. 7, 10.
 Oakland <http://www.newrules.org/environment/zerowasteoakland.html> Zero Waste Resolution, and <http://www.oaklandpw.com/AssetFactory.aspx?did=2123> http://ww
<outbind://41-000000005BC6FD20B2C2D311820B00805F65DF2B0700C166E48F0374D21181E700805F65DF2B000000C2BDEE00004BF9916121B58B49BFE44358BE20D71800000C71327B0000/#Table_of_Contents> Return to Table of Contents
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