Rachel's Democracy & Health News #900, March 29, 2007


[Rachel's introduction: In this important essay, Paul Palmer argues that traditional recycling has outlived its usefulness. What we really need is a system for designing and manufacturing products with perpetual re-use in mind. We need to recycle the function of products, not just the materials they are made of. This is the true Zero Waste approach.]

By Paul Palmer, Ph.D

[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 paulp@sonic.net.]

A little more than a year ago, an article entitled 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 observers.

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 zero waste.[1,2,3]

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 that creed.

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, 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 these:

** 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 unrecognizable.

** 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 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.[4] 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.[5] 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,[4] 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 paulp@sonic.net.


[1] Grassroots Recycling Network

[2] Eric Lombardi, Boulder http://www.ecocycle.org/Zer oWaste/index.cfm

[3] Paul Palmer, Getting To Zero Waste, http://gettingt ozerowaste.com

[4] Brenda Platt and Neil Seldman, 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.

[5] Oakland Zero Waste Resolution, and http://ww w.oaklandpw.com/AssetFactory.aspx?did=2123.