Sustainable We Forum: Putting a Value on Waste, by Design

Kate Davenport, Eureka Recycling: “We designed waste into our system… we can design waste out. How do we design products and packaging to be not waste, but a resource for something else?”

At the second Sustainable We forum, in November 2015, the take-away from the group conversation seemed to come down to three bullet points:

  • Minneapolis has the capacity, if not yet the policies, to emphasize even more sustainable social values;
  • Minneapolis has the innovators, if not yet the awareness about them, to lift up stronger design around consumption;
  • Waste is increasingly a more hopeful issue in Minneapolis, even if our solutions and choices still outpace changes in habits.

1. About Zero Waste Design Innovation

Amanda LaGrange of TechDump explained “planned obsolescence” — the tendency of companies to build inefficiency into its design. A cheap chip in a Black Friday television set is largely expected to give out in a few years, requiring the consumer to buy again. It’s not an accident that today’s products are “not built to last.”

Three young men from Lake Harriet Middle School shared insights about the design innovations they are learning about to create longer shelf lives for everything from cameras and phone batteries to shoes.

One participant pointed out the work of places like Lyf, to give shoes a new footprint.

And there are smarter ways to re-use our recycling. Sweden has gone from 38% recycling to 99% since 1975

Sweden’s 32 incinerator plants produce heat for 810,000 households and electricity for 250,000 private houses. Metals in the remaining ash are recycled. Porcelain and tile, which does not burn, is used as road construction gravel. One percent of the original weight of the pre-incinerated waste is landfilled.

Subscribe above to be updated on future stories about design innovations and the shelf life of resources.


2. About Social Values

Eureka Recycling, TechDump, and Better Futures all practice social values that go beyond recycling and re-use.

As Eureka’s Davenport said, “we don’t do our work on the backs of others. It’s important to us that we offer a full-time living wage and sick pay for our workers, who are doing dangerous jobs sorting what we put in our recycling bins. We recycle because we want to feel good as consumers, and at Eureka we believe that should extend beyond the waste itself. Sometimes the cheapest options don’t represent everything we want to achieve as a community.”

TechDump and Better Futures have specific business models that include job training and employment of hard-to-employ workers.


3. The Hope in Waste

Madalyn Cioci of Minnesota Pollution Control Agency reminded us that it was 1987 when the infamous New York City barge of garbage set sail looking for a home. It was turned away by North Carolina, Mexico and Belize before being required to return to Brooklyn for disposal.

In other words, it was only a few decades ago that we were in a crisis of waste just trying to keep up with the pace of garbage. Thanks to well-regulated incinerators and landfill liners and the development of recycling, we have found safer ways to manage our waste.

Instead, we now can turn our attention to the deeper questions of how to combat waste to reduce its impact on the climate (as emissions released into atmosphere) and its impact on the toxic, health-affecting pollution we are sending into our soil and water.

The motto, Cioci said, is “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” — which reminds us that the first step should be to Reduce our consumption habits. We’re not there yet, but we’ve come a long way since recycling first started, and the vibrant new secondhand stores throughout Minneapolis and ideas like the Fixit Clinic that have caught on, suggest we’re starting to really get it. [More on those to come.]

The message that is not yet widespread, she said, is that products are no different than humans in that we are born, live, and then die. Most of us recognize the death of a product as waste, without noticing that 90% of a product’s environmental impact, including waste, happens well before we recycle or throw something away.

Did you know that 2900 gallons of water go into the making of one pair of jeans… that 600 gallons is used to provide for one hamburger?


Wish List Items

Cioci at Minnesota Pollution Control:

Make behavior changes around the 5 Big C’s. Our biggest waste of resources — and contributor to air quality issues — comes from Cars, Cows, Coal, Clothes and Casa (home).

Davenport at Eureka:

  1. Someday Minneapolis will have composting required for all residents as more than an opt-in service, as is done in San Francisco, Seattle and Portland. (On the organics front, Eureka has a great website of ways to prevent food waste here, which will be a focal point of our April Sustainable We forum.)
  2. Someday we will move away from the incinerator concept, which creates highly concentrated toxic ash and largely impacts the health of low-income areas of our community. (Related to our January Sustainable We forum.)

LaGrange at TechDump:

It is believed that only 25% of electronics are recycled. And cell phones, easy to dispose of in a trash can or drawer, are recycled at a rate of about 11%. That means we are missing opportunities to re-use the valuable copper and steel in those devices, she said — which would employ people in the process. And she pointed out that a relatively new iPhone, traded in for a new model, could be wiped of data at TechDump, refurbished with new screen, and sold inexpensively to someone else instead of requiring yet another cell phone to be created new with those same limited resources.

“After you get a different device, please recycle the old one faster so it can be refurbished and sold. And, we need to continue moving away from the idea that only new devices work. We can save a lot of money and resources not buying in to the idea that refurbished products don’t last.”

Subscribe to be updated as new stories from this forum go online, including more on textiles, plastics and re-use options in Minneapolis. A future article will look at the Minnesota Right to Repair bill, that would impact our rights as consumers to buy products that are designed to be fixed when needed, rather than replaced with something new. (Think cell phone parts, for starters.)

NEXT UP: Sustainable We forum #3 is a large discussion about sustainable home design, featuring local architects and home builders. To be held December 14, Fulton Brewery.

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