An Exclusively Capitalist Reason to Recycle?

Some writers compare environmentalism to a religion. As with most issues, if we look close enough, there’s a lot of middle ground to be shared.


Technical + Biological Nutrients
In their landmark book “Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things”, architect William McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart describe all components as either “technical nutrients” or “biological nutrients”.

Technical nutrients like metal can be infinitely reused. Biological nutrients like wood and other organic waste degrade to make food for other organisms. Both can have great value.

The biological and technical nutrients in the dumpster pictured above are from a renovation project in an Atlanta suburb. The metal is the easiest to recycle though much of the other material can also be recycled. The dumpster is about a mile and half from the local recycling center.

The Cost of Production With Raw vs. Recycled Materials
The value of recycling rises and falls with the cost of other commodities. As conservative writer David French points out in his National Review article (which quotes the New York Times), the low cost of oil has depressed the demand for recycled materials compared to raw materials.

It’s important for community leaders at the local level to choose wisely when deciding what recycling services will be provided to their communities. Recycling materials for local or regional use makes more sense then bearing the cost to send materials a great distance (to other regions) to be recycled.

Case In Point: Georgia’s Carpet Mills
The carpet mills of North Georgia supply carpet for residential and commercial projects across the United States and in other countries. The mills consume a significant amount of recycled material to produce some of the carpet products. The Mohawk Group alone consumes a staggering 225 million pounds of plastic bottles to make fiber for carpet.

Plastic drink bottles are a technical nutrient that can be recycled into other products, like carpet. In the mid-2000’s, Georgia leaders realized they were throwing money into the landfill when they allowed a waste stream like plastic bottles to be placed in a landfill rather than recycled within the region. Once those materials are in the landfill, they’re lost for generations.

In 2008, Georgians were throwing away 180,000 pounds of plastic bottles – valued at about $30 million. The carpet mills were paying to bring in used plastic bottles from other regions like New England to fill their production needs. Who bears the higher costs of importing materials from other regions? We do.

The Business of Recycling
There’s often a business case to be made. An argument that uses sheer force of logic rather than emotion to win the day. “Cradle to Cradle” does a good job of consistently making the business case: conservation helps keep prices down by reducing the cost of materials and processing. Don’t we like lower costs?

Writers like David French make a good point – it’s important to strike a reasonable balance when determining what recycling services a municipality should offer as some services provide very little reward relative to their financial and environmental costs. That seems to make conservation the clear winner. Reducing what we consume and reusing what we have are the two most effective strategies.

In Conclusion
Design is one of the key aspects of the reduce, reuse and recycle mantra. Products designed for more than one use, for durable service through their lifetime and for easy recycling should be a priority for consumers. Products that can be reused many times should help reduce your expenses – you don’t need a new product every time you set about the same task.

We still need to recycle because reducing and reusing isn’t always practical. Businesses are responding to the challenges of recycling through innovation and technology. They’re partnering with national labs and university research centers to find ways to recycle more and more of our waste stream.

In next week’s blog post, we’ll explore a recycling center designed to capture more than the typical waste stream from a community. The recycling center gives residents the ability to dispose of commonly recycled materials through it can also divert toxic materials from landfills.

As always, please leave questions and comments below – especially if you’ve got any lessons learned or good advice on reducing, reusing or recycling. Thanks!

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