Lifecycle

Manufacturers and designers often talk about the “lifecycle” of a product. They make an analogy with the lifecycle of a living organism. It is born (it is manufactured), it lives (it is used), and then it dies (it is thrown away). However, the analogy is a bad one.

Natural organisms, in general, are not “thrown away” when they die. They do not become “waste” in the way that manufactured products become waste, rubbish or garbage. When an organism dies, it is consumed by other organisms. It is a nutrient in a cycle of reuse. Manufactured items do not participate in any such cycle.

We attempt to ameliorate this to some degree by recycling. However, ‘recycling’ is a misnomer. Products are not really recycled, they are merely downgraded and partially reused. No car will be built from steel salvaged from a scrap heap. When a scrapped car is melted down, its metal is mixed with all the other materials that make up the car – particularly paints and plastics – and the steel is contaminated and weakened. Similarly, recycled paper is far inferior to paper from fresh wood pulp. Not only that but also the energy required to recycle paper is far greater than the energy required to manufacture new paper. The chlorine used to bleach recycled paper is worse for the environment than the chemicals used to make new paper. Finally, new paper is made from managed soft-wood forests: when you buy new paper, you are paying for more trees to be planted.

Recycling is bad for the environment and a waste of money. Aluminium is the only resource that can be recycled effectively and efficiently for a lower cost (in both financial and environmental terms) than its original manufacture. Electrolysis of bauxite is very energy intensive. For everything else, recycling is a bad idea.

The whole idea of recycling is a symptom of flawed thinking. People are gradually coming around to the idea that the modern industrial process, which we might call “cradle to grave”, is unstable and dangerous. I hesitate to say that it is unsustainable, which is a claim I have heard many environmentalists make but for which I have never seen any real evidence, but I do think it is unstable. Its sustainability depends solely on continuing human ingenuity and favourable social and economic conditions. It lacks the inherent self-regulating stability of an ecosystem, of something composed of organisms with genuine lifecycles.

But even those people who realise this do not change their mindset. They do not change their “cradle to grave” paradigm, they just try to be slightly less harmful. They still design goods with a limited lifespan and no real possibility of genuine reuse, but then instead of throwing them in landfills they use them to make (possibly toxic) clothing or some other junk. They still design industrial processes that produce dangerous waste products, but instead of just pumping it all straight into a river they filter it a bit first. Rather than trying to be good, they just try to be slightly less bad.

If we take the “lifecycle” analogy seriously, we should consider products as potential nutrients. We should design cars such that when they are no longer wanted they can be stripped down and separated into their original component materials. Then their steel can retain its strength and purity and be reused for a similar purpose. Instead of being “downcycled” it can be genuinely recycled. It becomes an industrial nutrient.

We should design all our products so that they are either biological nutrients or industrial nutrients. There is no waste in nature. One organism’s waste is always a nutrient for another organism. Our products should either be biodegradable, in which case they should be able to safely enter the natural ecosystem, or they should be genuinely recyclable, in which case it should be possible to reuse their constituent materials and chemicals without loss of quality.

We should not stick to the “cradle to grave” mentality of the Industrial Revolution. We should move to an ecologically inspired “cradle to cradle” mentality. Recycled products should be the same as new products, not environmentally dangerous inferior versions.

The nice thing about this idea is that it isn’t as far-fetched and impractical as it seems. It is not my idea, I got it from a chemist and an architect who co-authored Cradle to Cradle. I was surprised, given my usual cynicism and distrust of environmentalism, at how inspiring I found that book. For the first time, I read something rational, sensible and scientifically sound that offered not only a reasonable criticism of modern design practices but also a practical solution to the problems that it identified. “Cradle to cradle” may sound utopian but every suggestion in the book is presented along with an example of how it has already been put into practice. The authors are not anti-industry, they work with industry to improve their practices and, at the same time, their profits. Even my pessimism and cynicism couldn’t hold up against stories of companies that had simultaneously improved their profits and benefitted the environment.

I just hope they don’t encourage the hippies. Nasty, dirty people.

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Published in: on November 8, 2008 at 8:39 pm  Leave a Comment  

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