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Materials

Humans are the only species on this planet who have created materials that did not exist before. We have learned how to combine molecules or atoms in ways that have been unknown until that time. We have even invented and intentionally created molecules to help us reach our goals. That is quite a technological feat, however, it has caused tremendous problems. Until the invention of human-made materials there have been natural ways of cycling those materials back into the natural cycle of life. Anything created in nature will decompose and its components will be re-used. The human-made materials are often called "plastic" and we made a staggering amount of those materials with a variety of characteristics. This amount of human-made materials cannot be processed, decomposed, or digested by any organism. This means the material will stay (rather uselessly and ugly) where we put them unless we invent such an organism and keep our fingers crossed that, for once, it only does what we intend it to do. Or wait patiently a few ten-thousand years until micro organisms who may digest a human-made material evolve naturally.
(NOTE: This may solve the problem of already existing human-made garbage. However it will not solve the problem of the enormous waste of natural resources that goes on right now and needs to end soon. We need those resources for more important things than filling holes in the ground, even if the plastic in those holes one day turns into dirt.)

Recycling comes to mind. Supported by the industry and governments, recycling has become the popular, easy (and obviously working) solution for an individual's garbage problem. Or is it?

Unquestionably, items have to be transported. Liquids, foods, powders, etc. are difficult to transport without a container. What to do with that container after it is empty? Is recycling a good alternative? Would it not be better to avoid disposing the container? If it is designed and made well you could refill it! You could keep it and use it for a different purpose. You could re-use it whenever you have the need for similar packaging materials. You could send it back to the manufacturer to be cleaned and reused or recycled probably without significant quality-loss (since the manufacturer receives back the original material). Do you really need the item? Does the product you want to buy really have to be in that container? We know what happened to "recycle" (it got BIG!!) , but what ever happened to the better solutions "reduce" and "reuse"? Why do we not design all of our products to be reused over and over?

Fact is, recycling requires energy and it pollutes. Millions of tons of recycled materials are shipped all over the planet to processing plants. The processing, depending on the materials and methods, may release toxic by-products. The gained materials are generally of lesser quality than the individual items that were recycled. Those materials are made into low quality products and there is only a limited demand for ever-lasting low-quality products. Recycling makes our ways of dealing with packaging and garbage sometimes less bad, but by no means good. Recycling has become a distracting marketing solution to an environmental and long-term economical problem without solving the problem. Recycling is a patch to make you feel better and continue shopping.

In addition to packaging there are the products that were packaged and are used for a bit longer than packaging. For those we have developed the attitude that responsibility and ownership can end. If you dispose of an item legally it is no longer yours to worry about. Society takes over. If you sell an item, its effect on the environment after its use is no longer your responsibility. You may be responsible for the safety of the buyer, but you are not responsible for the product once the original buyer has given up ownership. You sold it. It is not yours any longer. For many generations (and still today) the thinking that your trash is somebody else’s problem has been accepted as not to be a problem.

A dishwasher, for example, is made of many different materials. Steel, copper, other (heavy, precious, toxic) metals, rubber, a variety of different plastics, glass, electronic components. All combined in ways that allow disassembly (for repairs) or make it very difficult (if not expected). Try to separate the copper from the plastic insulation of an electric wire! Burning it off creates toxic fumes. Stripping is a lot of work. Same with the plastic covering the metal dish racks. If it is not made for recycling these materials are currently not labeled and it is unknown what they are made from. Maybe the parts are too little for marking them. Maybe the manufacturer does not want you to know their composition.

Often different materials are combined in ways that make sure the materials stay together. Anything sewn together is not supposed to be taken apart. Clothing, suitcases, bags, curtains, shoes, anything made from cloth or leather, ... are products made from materials combinations that will stay together unless you take a few hours to separate them. And then you don’t know what each is because it is not labeled. Often a fabric is made from several different materials. Even if it is 100% cotton, the sewing thread may not be.

It gets worse when you look at items that are made from materials that are compound or hybrids. These materials combine different materials within themselves. Fiberglass or carbon fiber are two examples. Here a fiber (glass or carbon) is embedded in a plastic resin to make a strong part. There is no way to separate the two. Neither can be re-used. How do you separate the 75% cotton from the 25% polyester in a fabric? Most high-performance sports equipment is made from materials that are designed to perform best while the product is in use. Our definition of "high-performance" is rather limited. No thought is wasted on the time after the product is not in use any longer. Materials are fused together permanently and its components are shaped so specifically that they are currently(!) not usable for anything else.

This way almost everything made by humans flows in a one-way stream into landfills or trash incinerators. Where nature has created areas with naturally higher concentrations of materials, we have unintentionally developed a process to make valuable resources useless. We are harvesting the materials from those natural areas of higher concentration, combining them in ways that makes it close to impossible to re-use them, and either dump them in the ground as a useless mix, or release them into the air, soil and water by burning.

There are few good immediate and easy solutions for this. As an individual not involved in the product design or manufacturing process you have the option to limit your wants and avoid certain products. The problem goes away if enough people refuse to purchase or use products that cause problems. Looking at every thing that enters your life thinking about what will happen with it when you are done using it is a start. Avoid throwing away materials as much as possible. As a manufacturer (or anyone involved in this process) you can accept responsibility and e.g. consider renting products and take the product back when no longer needed. Does it mean it is impossible to design a product for disassembly and complete reuse just because it is not done today? You will have to rethink your whole business but at least you may retrieve valuable materials and get some exited new customers. Nobody said it would be easy.

There is one good option: Use only materials that are natural or can decompose in the environment easily. If you found the material in the natural environment and are using it for a product as is or with only a modified "shape", you will not create a problem when the product is not usable any longer and is disposed off. If you can throw a product in your compost pile and nature will take care of it within a few years without poisoning your compost pile, you have little to worry about as well.

 

 

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