In their book, ‘Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things’, William McDonough and Michael Braungart set out a manifesto of product design principles for a sustainable society, centred upon manufacturing of suitably designed products. Their vision is a long, long way off, but there are some things that can be done within supply chains right now, not out of altruism but for our own benefit: to reduce waste disposal charges, and to ensure that material supplies last longer… which means that they are likely to cost us less.
A key concept introduced by Braungart and McDonough is that of the monstrous hybrid; a product that is an unholy combination of technical and organic ‘nutrients’. Technical nutrients can be recovered by established processes such as dismantling or melting down, whereas organic nutrients are materials that form part of the organic cycle: they grow, are harvested and refined, put to use, and then they rot away when they are disposed of, becoming compost that supports the growth of new organic products.
The trouble comes when a product is a mixture of technical and organic materials. Consider a blister pack, commonly used in the retail of small items: it features a cardboard backing, and a vacuum-formed plastic bubble that displays the product. As soon as you open up the packaging, it becomes waste, and you throw it away… but how? Is it cardboard, or plastic? Even if you try to do the right thing and separate the two pieces so they can be disposed of in different categories, there’s going to be some cardboard and glue stuck on the remains of the plastic bubble. This is one reason why a manufacturer can’t simply melt down the plastic and mould it into something else; in fact it’s far more likely that the plastic will simply become refuse-derived fuel (RDF).
Braungart and McDonough go further, pointing out that the inks typically used for printing on packaging are oil-based. Thus, composting of cardboard isn’t an acceptable solution either, as the cardboard part has become a monstrous hybrid, never to be separated. Again, burning for energy recovery becomes the most attractive option.
This is not just a problem that affects packaging, though. Consider polyester cotton garments: they’re superior to pure cotton in that they’re harder-wearing, they resist shrinkage and they crease less… but at the end of life you’ve got a mixture of materials that aren’t easily separated.
Help is at hand, in the form of emerging materials applications such as the use of starch to make disposable cutlery: plastic cutlery would be contaminated by food, and food waste would be contaminated by waste plastic… use a starch-based bioplastic and you can compost the lot – for cheaper waste disposal charges and a clearer conscience. You can make your own bioplastics right now; it’s not particularly complicated, and your main feedstock might be something as inexpensive as potato peelings – producing a material that can be moulded using existing machinery and techniques. There’s no need to assume automatically that when you specify a plastic component that means you’re dependent upon the oil industry.
Perhaps we really can remake the way we make things.