Thursday, July 10, 2008

Turning Trash Into Treasure: How Diverting Waste is the Ultimate Act of Sustainability

On Sustainablog, Caroline Savery has an interesting point to ponder: Turning Trash Into Treasure: How Diverting Waste is the Ultimate Act of Sustainability. In the quest for living sustainably it's useful to question the goal and the means to achieve the goal. Her question is...

If I am claiming to live a 100% sustainable lifestyle, then certainly I cannot acquire anything new–all supplies must be redeemed from the waste stream of others. Or must they?

Ah.. So if the goal is "sustainable" living is the only way to accomplish the goal to use only things other people consider to be trash? As she says there is a lot of value in the embodied energy of any material. A lot of resources go into the construction of any item which comes out of our mechanized industrialized society. Working to reuse existing materials makes reuse of that existing embodied energy, meaning that our mechanized industrialized society doesn't have to expend new energy and resources to build new items.

To take a small step back to get a little perspective. Consider any item, she suggests a "cupboard". Say you have some cups and dishes and want a place to keep them, that's what cupboards are for right? There's two ways to accomplish this desire:-

  • Go to the store and buy a new cupboard
  • Find a used cupboard or find materials from which you can build a cupboard

The first method involves having the mechanized industrialized society crank some resources and energy through a factory and delivery system to construct that cupboard and deliver it to your home. In the past the energy cost to construct new products was miniscule because "energy" has been cheap for a long time. But it appears our mechanized industrialized society is moving into a period of scarce energy and in any case the methods our mechanized industrialized society has used to generate "energy" has always been involved with side effects of pollution and depleted resources.

In the second case the energy and resource cost is much lower. That's because the energy and resource cost was already paid when the item was originally built.

Yeah, I agree a more effective form of recycling is reuse. e.g. most of my dishes and stuff were bought at Goodwill, that is reuse in action right there.

But I want to question the original assumption. Is it automatically more sustainable to reuse someone elses refuse? Is it always unsustainable to go to the store and buy new stuff?

It depends.

I think when we buy anything there is a responsibility to be a good steward of that thing. If you buy a new cupboard.. then by all means be a good steward of it and make sure it has a nice long useful life. Repair it when it gets creaky. Refinish it every 20 years or so. Make sure it's a well built cupboard that will last for 200 years. That's another kind of thinking that is sustainable.

However in our mechanized industrialized society the high quality, sturdily built, long lasting item, they are not highly valued. It seems most of the furniture you find in furniture stores is shoddily built, and not built to last. I remember buying a cheap entertainment center during my college years, it looked great in the store but it was built out of fiber board and after 2 moves it was totally trashed and ended up in the trash. However looking around my office I see some bookshelves I bought a little over 10 years ago, they were made from real wood, I've moved 6 times in the last 10 years, and these shelves are just as sturdy as when they were bought. I suspect these shelves could last 100 years, they're that well built.

When buying a solidly built item that will last a long time, and practicing good stewardship over that item to ensure it does last a long time -- what you're doing is amortizing the embodied energy cost of that item over more years. Maybe that's a good model to think about this... you calculate something like "embedded energy / years of service" and it comes out to an energy cost per year. Even if something is expensive to produce, if it will last for 1000 years and still be useful after all that time, then the embodied energy cost will have been worth the investment. Likewise an item that's cheap to produce but is used only once and thrown away is unsustainable because the amortization of the embodied energy cost is very bad.

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