More Than Recycling

Which of the three are the most sustainable?

I once was a recycling aficionado. My intentions, like many of us, were good. I believed I was doing the best thing for the environment and this was one way I knew how to “do my part”. Over the years, however, particularly this past year as a student in the Patel College of Global Sustainability has taught me recycling is not all it is cracked up to be.

Michael Braungart and William McDonough, the authors of Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things and The Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability- Designing for Abundance challenge readers to move out of the mindset to do “less of the bad things” as an effort to be more sustainable. Rather, they exhort readers to instead change the way we are creating goods so that we do not have to figure out how to recycle all the parts of a juice box (much of won’t be able to be reused again anyhow).

I understand “doing less of the bad things” as recognizing how inefficient recycling actually is in the long run. Until I fully understood the water-energy nexus, plus the carbon footprint required to ship many of our recyclables to China (where many plastics from the United States cannot even be recycled due to contamination), I believed recycling was the best we could do as a world. Top this off with all the health affects of toxins and chemicals in our plastics and products that human beings are exposed to daily. It is no surprise to me, but absolutely grieves my heart, what high rates of cancer, infertility, miscarriages, amongst other health issues humans are then dealt.

Dr. Culhane’s video lecture calls out the greed and hunger for more profit that often is the motivation to produce more waste. I also think of Braungart’s and McDonough’s questioning of the design of our products. Why is human health, which is priceless, put at risk for the sake of a profit? The way the majority of our products are designed only lead to more waste and bring with them hazardous chemicals and toxins. Is a hefty paycheck worth knowing one has created negative externalities that the general public never asked for and that most of us are unaware of?

So how do we do “less of the bad things”? Braungart and McDonough share their story of creating a fabric that is safe enough to eat that was made out of wool and ramie (I had to Google what ramie is and I found out it is a vegetable fiber, primarily native to parts of Asia). They reference nomadic cultures that historically only created their goods out of products that came from the Earth and could then be scattered to go back into the soil once its purpose had been served. When our products are full of harmful cancer-causing chemicals and plastics that we know will never breakdown and can only be recycled so many times, we continue the cycle of continuing to do “less of the bad things”.

I am ambitious enough to attempt to create my own biodegradable products. My end goal is always finding a solution and then somehow figuring out how to scale it onto a larger level. I would like to see if this is something I could consider a “creative project” throughout this course this fall (and hopefully beyond).

Are reusable cups the most optimal, sustainable choice?

I have also been in the process of embracing a “zero-waste” lifestyle and this is something I want to continue to publicize and encourage others to see how we can make small choices that will add up, to do more than recycling. This morning life circumstances led me to work out of a Starbucks (coordinating life with one car with my husband sometimes leads me to work in remote places) and I arrived ready to purchase my morning coffee, to only realize I left my tumbler at home and by then home was miles away in Miami congestion. However, the world decided to smile upon me and I happened to see reusable cups for sale at the cash register for only 3 dollars! I immediately made my purchase. In the end, the energy it took to produce this one reusable cup is significantly less than it would have taken to recycle the parts of the throw-away cup I would have otherwise received, not to mention parts that would have inevitably ended up in a landfill. Choosing reusable goods appears to be one of the best choices we can make right now, but the most optimal choice is to create and use products that can easily go back into the Earth. This reusable cup is a plastic number 5, which can be recycled, but at the end of the day, this plastic will eventually end up in an ocean. There is also the water and energy that will one day be used to recycle this plastic number 5 when this cup has run its course. In the meantime, it is less than what is required for every single-use cup.

May this course inspire us to lead in creating truly sustainable solutions for the sake of all global citizens.