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Living Spaces—Taking Out the Trash
By Elizabeth Marglin
If you count yourself among the ecologically minded, chances are you focus a certain amount of brainpower and energy on minimizing the environmental impact of your consumption. For most of us, responsible trash disposal begins and ends with recycling. In the assortment of bins under our sinks, we segregate our carefully rinsed glass, plastic, and aluminum. And the satisfying thump of yesterday’s newspaper in the recycling box signals room for today’s paper on our breakfast table and in our environment. Or does it?
Certainly recycling factors significantly in reducing waste, but it’s really only one part of an oft-overlooked three-tiered strategy: reduce, reuse, and recycle. We’ve become so good at recycling that we’ve made it the star of the sustainability movement, when it really should be just one of the players.
Since recycling deals only with the back end of consumption (disposal), it treats the symptoms of the disease rather than its root cause: the overproduction of trash. The new approach to sustainable consumption, however, focuses not just on how we dispose of a product (à la recycling), but on how we produce that product in the first place (dubbed precycling). It strives to create goods using nontoxic, recyclable, or reusable materials with the least amount of packaging and waste. In fact, precycling is fast becoming the most effective approach to long-term sustainability.
Getting to the source
Precycling resonates so powerfully as a concept and practice because it targets the production of industrial waste as well. While it’s important for each of us to manage our own consumption and waste disposal effectively, residential trash is just a drop in the landfill bucket. Nonhazardous industrial waste outweighs municipal solid waste by about 11 to one and accounts for about 98 percent of the nation’s waste. Clearly, the mere act of sorting one’s trash efficiently is not going to make a huge dent in the collective dustbin. To effectively reduce the by-products of our consumption addiction, the industries that drive it have to become part of the solution. If our end of the bargain is to consume more wisely and dispose better, manufacturers as a group need to produce more sustainable goods. This has to be the most important paradigm shift in the recycling world: getting manufacturers more involved with the entire life cycle of their products, from production to disposal.
By encouraging companies to produce less waste, use environmentally friendly materials, and design their products to be durable, recyclable, or reusable, we can tackle the problem from the front end while continuing to work the back end through reducing, reusing, and recycling.
Two of the leaders of this new perspective, William McDonough and Michael Braungart, an architect and a chemist respectively, cowrote Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things (North Point Press, 2002). McDonough and Braungart talk about “design being a signal of...
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