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Chapter 7 The Science of Recycling

Szaky, Tom Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

Chapter 7

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© TerraCycle

Because the waste problem represents more than 11 billion tons per year on a global basis,1 the fundamental solution to all that waste needs to be on an industrial scale. On such a monumental scale, it is hard to leverage the intention and the form of an object. Reuse and recycling would really have their work cut out for them, and it is much easier to focus just on composition. That is where recycling comes in.

Recycling has been in full force since the dawn of the Bronze Age (3300 BCE). Metals have always been difficult commodities to come by, and there is evidence of bronze and other metals being collected in Europe and melted down for perpetual reuse.2 This behavior was tied entirely to the economics of waste. It was very expensive to harvest new bronze from rock and significantly easier to just melt down a broken bronze object and make something new.

During the Industrial Revolution, the need for metals was enormous, and metal recycling was in full force. Just imagine how much metal it took to build the railroads that crisscross Europe and North America. During World War II, the US government urged citizens to conserve as much as they could in terms of energy, food, materials, and other essentials. Citizens were encouraged to donate metals to the war effort—helping forge everything from bullets to tanks. The culture of recycling, unlike conservation, stayed in effect after the war.

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Chapter 8 The Critical Element of Separation

Szaky, Tom Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

Chapter 8

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In nature the waste of organisms is typically spread out in small quantities over a wide area. Unlike humans, animals in nature don’t head to the same spot every time they have to poop. They don’t preserve their dead, place them in caskets, and later bury them in designated areas. And they certainly don’t have any garbage, let alone put it all into a big pile.

When outputs are mixed together as they are in a landfill, it is harder for them to become useful inputs. Putting even useful outputs into the garbage will render them useless outputs. While this is partly because they will not naturally decompose in a landfill, it is also because it is very hard to recycle a soda bottle (#1 plastic) when it is squashed together with a banana, a yogurt cup (#5 plastic), and a used rag.

Any one of these outputs could be recycled or composted individually. A soda bottle could be melted down into plastic, as could a yogurt cup. A banana could be composted, and a rag could be shredded and made into paper or new fabric.

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Szaky, Tom Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub
Medium 9781626560246

Chapter 5 The Hierarchy of Waste

Szaky, Tom Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

Chapter 5

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From the macro perspective, we see garbage as a phenomenal volume of mixed complex materials and primarily useless outputs whose creation is driven by our chronic consumerism. If we are looking for the true value in garbage, it is best to look at garbage from the micro perspective—a perspective that looks at the makeup of garbage—and dissect what a single piece of garbage really is.

Let’s use the example of a “disposable” coffee cup. First, it is important to make the distinction between a new and a used coffee cup. Both are coffee cups, but one has positive value: a coffee shop would buy a new cup to serve you that venti chai latte. The other cup—the used one—has negative value (a coffee shop would not buy it back from you). Once you’ve indulged in your drink, you will most likely put the cup in a garbage can (as coffee cups are not recyclable in today’s recycling systems due to the plastic coating on the inside), the owner of which will have to pay for that coffee cup to be transported to a nearby landfill or incinerator.

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Chapter 9 The Economics of Outsmarting Waste

Szaky, Tom Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

Chapter 9

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The main reason why waste is sent to landfills and incinerators and why few of our outputs are recycled (like they technically can be) is all tied up in the economics of waste. It is simply more expensive to collect and recycle most things than the results are worth, and it’s cheap—because we allow it to be cheap—to send waste to a landfill or an incinerator.

Because our world is so economically motivated, perhaps we can make outsmarting waste more attractive by speaking the language of economics. There are hidden economic benefits of investing in the process of outsmarting waste on several different levels. Like the whole of outsmarting waste, these benefits can begin with you at home.

Although outsmarting waste may require an investment of your time, every aspect should save you money. If you don’t buy unnecessary items, you can save money for something more important. Packaged processed food tends to be more expensive then unpackaged fresh foods. Durable products, even though they may cost more initially, will last longer than disposables and should save you money over the long term. Buying used instead of new will also leave a few extra bucks in your pocket.

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