Janet Unruh: Recycle Everything – Why We Must, How We Can
Janet Unruh is a person who believes that everything can be recycled 100% – provided we learn how to design things properly and set up the right systems for materials recovery. With her knowledge and experience in manufacturing, having worked for the last decade in the truck manufacturing industry, she has founded “The Institute for Material Sustainability” in Portland, Oregon, USA where she lives. Through her book Recycle Everything - Why We Must, How We Can and the Institute, she hopes to enable industries to transition to more sustainable methods of using materials for manufacture and recovery through recycling.
BP: To start from the very title of your book, Recycle Everything: Why We Must, How We Can , why “must” we recycle everything?
Janet: We simply can’t continue to take resources from the Earth, put them through our production-consumption system and dispose of them afterward. Such a system, by its very nature, is not sustainable. Someday, we’ll run into resource limitations. Because of this, efforts at slowing down the throughput of materials and mitigating the effects of disposal don’t address the problem directly and only delay the inevitable, which is scarcity of resources.
What we need is a cyclical system that retains all the materials within itself and reuses them continuously. Such a system would eliminate the need for both extraction of raw materials and disposal of waste. That may seem outlandish to some, but I believe that if a thing can be imagined, it can be engineered. If it weren’t so, we wouldn’t have things like the iPhone or Droid, we wouldn’t send rovers to Mars.
BP: Can everything really be recycled 100%?
Janet: I believe the answer is yes. Scientists are creating such things as artificial atoms and programmable matter. Think about that for a moment. If we humans are capable of designing atoms, why can’t we have 100% recyclable materials? We already have certain metals, glass and plastics that could be described as 100% recyclable, but we need to create more options. We need to ask questions like, how can we design a material that will serve purpose X and be capable of being reprocessed so that it can be used for this same purpose again? Then we go to work on it.
Alright, so let’s say our goal is to create materials that are 100% recyclable. I call them ‘perpetually reusable materials’ in the book. What does that mean? It means that these materials should be stable, lossless, easily reprocessed and reused, requiring no additives and releasing no byproducts in reprocessing. That’s a very high standard and may be possible only up to a point. I know that everything decays. There’s an interesting word, ‘disgregation’, which refers to the fact that molecules are constantly in motion and become separated from each other. This applies to all matter. But even if we are able to invent materials that are 90% recyclable, that eliminates 90% of extraction and waste. What an enormous benefit that would be!
And let me emphasize this point: when the material is designed, the method for reprocessing it and returning it to stockpiles must also be designed and the method has to be cost-effective. Ideally, the cost of reprocessing the material is less than the cost of extracting raw materials.
“Look around you. The microwave oven, the cell phone, the car, clothing, appliances, furniture – imagine that when you’re done with them, you give them to a collector, possibly through curb-side pick-up. Then all these products would go back into the system for 100% reuse in new products. There would be no more used stuff being thrown on top of mountains of junk with toxic chemicals draining into rivers. What are the issues that need to be addressed for 100% reuse to become a reality? Why don’t we fix the production-consumption system so that all the materials that enter into the system stay in the system? We must answer these questions. Only then can we say that our production-consumption system is sustainable.”
(Page 8 of Recycle Everything: Why We Must, How We Can )
BP: William McDonough and Michael Braungart’s book “ Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things ” is a well-known classic on sustainable materials and design. What inspired you to write another book on the same theme?
Janet : The book, Cradle to Cradle, Remaking the Way We Make Things, was a great inspiration to me but I felt that it would be difficult for anyone in industry to know how to apply the ideas in the book. There was still a large gap to be filled—a whole new system needed to be mapped and explained in detail. And if you could get ideas like those in Cradle to Cradle accepted by management, you’d have to tell them what to do to implement them, step by step. So I would say that I adapted many of the Cradle-to-Cradle ideas to the interests of industry and made the ideas operational—capable of being put into operation.
I have quite a bit of experience with manufacturing because I worked as a contractor for 10 years at one of the largest global truck manufacturers with factories in over a dozen countries. My job enabled me to work with management in all the major departments at corporate headquarters as well as the workers on the assembly lines in the manufacturing plants. Through this experience, I learned how ideas are accepted and how things get done. I could see what was needed to bridge that gap and make the ideas practicable in a manufacturing context.
BP: Is it really possible to map a system by which we can close the materials loop – so that resources are recycled endlessly?
Janet : Yes it is. I call this new kind of system a system for material sustainability. The first thing we need is a map of this system to show how it would work. This map has to be adaptable for products made of organic materials, such as wood, natural fiber, food waste, etc., and for inorganic materials such as metals, minerals, plastics, and glass.
In this map, materials never leave the system, but are passed from one role to another and reused in new products countless times into the future. This graphic is a depiction of an inorganic system. The organic version of the system routes used materials to compost and then to fields and forests to provide nutrients for new crops. I explain these systems much more fully in the book and provide examples of several adaptations.
So now that we have a system, we’re beginning to see a little more light on the subject but there’s still a long way to go to make it workable. For instance, what if a product isn’t designed to be disassembled? Well, then it is simply impractical to try to disassemble it. This is an example of how the system has to be optimized. When the product is designed, it has to be designed for easy assembly and easy disassembly.
BP: Can you give an example where you can apply this to industry?
Janet: Sure. Let’s say that we’re going to write business requirements for a piece of equipment, yet to be designed, that will disassemble a product. And let’s say in our example, that Goodlife (fictitious name) corporation wants to make a new washing machine and its disassembly plan is defined. The disassembly plan will programmed into this specially-designed disassembly equipment. Now, when the product is recovered from the consumer, it will be routed to this piece of equipment in the disassembly plant.
The business requirements for the disassembly equipment are these: the equipment should be able read a 3-D bar code, located on the washer, to receive the disassembly instructions. As a side note, the reason for this is that disassembly equipment should be capable of disassembling multiple products. The equipment should have the ability to perform actions as specified in the instructions. Now we can give these business requirements and the disassembly instructions to people who design manufacturing equipment and they can design this piece of equipment and write the programming for it. This is the kind of detailed specification that is needed to make the entire system for material sustainability operational. If we don’t discuss things on this level of detail, we’re not making sustainability possible.
Stakeholders and the management team must write business requirements such as these for the entire system. Once the new systems, processes, roles, materials and equipment are set up, they must be optimized for efficiency and cost-effectiveness. One of my goals is to find people that can design a computer modelling system for this purpose. The computer system would show real-time operations in an animated simulation that would permit easy adaptability. I would like to be able to drag and drop lean manufacturing/six sigma features into the operations to optimize them.
Since 1991, Xerox’s efforts in recycling and remanufacturing have enabled them to refurbish more than 2.8 million copiers, printers and multifunction products. Returned products that are suitable for reuse undergo rigorous testing before remanufacturing. Those that cannot be remanufactured are disassembled, and the parts are reused or recycled. A small fraction of the remaining material is discarded. In 2006 alone, Xerox collected 43,000 metric tons of equipment and reused or recycled 96% of it.
(Page 42 of Recycle Everything: Why We Must, How We Can )
BP: How serious do you see the problem of material shortage for industry?
Janet: Very serious. And yet, I would characterize it as being locked in a building with a madman rather than standing on train tracks and seeing a train approach from afar. Material shortage is difficult to quantify simply because there is a chance that somebody somewhere in the world may stumble across a deposit of valuable ore that hadn’t yet been discovered. The true size of global deposits can’t be ascertained with 100% accuracy. There are, however, many studies available on the subject of future scarcity, and I refer to some of them in my book.
Our ability to manufacture products is threatened by the increasing scarcity of raw materials. In some cases, raw materials aren’t scarce per se, but they are becoming more expensive to extract because the sources that were easily accessible have already been scraped out or siphoned off and remaining deposits are increasingly difficult to reach. The ore grades of these deposits may also be lower quality, and they will require a greater amount of energy to produce a ton of metal. Access to materials can also be overshadowed by political tensions, regional conflicts, and war.
We only need to turn to the news to learn about shortages. An article in New Scientist* magazine reports that scientists are beginning to realize that certain raw materials will run out, according to a study conducted by researchers at Yale University, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the University of Augsburg, Germany. Here are a few examples. Indium, which is used in flat-panel TVs and computer screens, could run out in four to 13 years. Silver could become depleted in between four to 29 years. Lead, used in batteries, could become impossible to find in eight to 42 years. Zinc could be exhausted by 2037; hafnium, which is important in computer chips, by 2017, and terbium, which is used to make fluorescent light bulbs, by 2012. Clearly, some of these shortages will have an impact on manufacturing soon.
(Page 2 of Recycle Everything: Why We Must, How We Can )
The price for one of these metals, indium, jumped considerably after the New Scientist article was published in 2007. Several substitutes were developed and although sources of indium continue to shrink, the price of indium has decreased. This is a kind of good news/bad news story. It’s good news for those who can use substitutes—they have bought time to continue production. But it’s bad news for those who absolutely must have indium. Why? Because market prices are not a reliable indicator of the remaining supply of a resource. In fact, market prices are more responsive to demand. And meanwhile, extractors are motivated to extract a resource as quickly as possible due to the discount factor**. And so the producers who are dependent on indium may find themselves confronted with scarcity quite abruptly.
There are those who believe that technology can surmount any challenge of material availability. There are several issues with this. The high-grade ores or materials within easy reach are discovered and extracted first, so that over time, the quality and accessibility of new sources diminishes. At some point, the cost of extraction and processing exceeds profitability.
Technology itself is dependent on materials, so the depletion of one critical material can impact our ability to extract other materials. Many people are talking about ‘peak oil’, which means that production of petroleum products has already hit an all-time high and is beginning to decline. And since there’s no substitute for oil, its availability and price will have an enormous negative effect not only on materials extraction but on the entire global economy.
It may be that industry will be goaded into change by the scarcity of one material or another. Manufacturers can go broke if production has to be shut down for an unknown length of time, competition for materials intensifies and they are priced out of the market, and viable substitutes can’t be found in time. I think it would be smarter by far to anticipate the inevitable than to bet on business as usual.
BP: In the systems for material sustainability, consumers no longer own things; they lease them. And manufacturers now have to own materials. Please explain why this is necessary.
Janet: Okay, let me start with the manufacturers, or producers. In order to continue to manufacture products, they must retain control, or ownership of materials. Without materials, there is no guarantee that the manufacturer can continue to produce. The systems for material sustainability provide producers with various tracking and recovery methods. Some have suggested that material cost can be assessed at each point along the way, and that would make it profitable for someone to collect products for resale. This could work for some things, such as clothes, which are often given away to others. Also, with a bit of redesign to exclude toxic chemicals, we can make some things to be compostable—such as furniture, which could be made of cotton, hemp, wood and possibly biodegradable plastic. We have to adapt to a world in which a material like Indium is not reliably available, but perhaps it is the very best material to use in LCD screens. That makes it critical for producers to get that Indium back.
The change for consumers is that they no longer own, but instead lease things like appliances, electronics, some types of furniture and vehicles. People like to buy stuff (as Annie Leonard likes to call it), but after a while, stuff breaks down and then they have to dispose of it somehow. If they go out and buy new stuff, why not turn in the old stuff at the same time? Or, as I suggested in my book, perhaps we could have curbside pickup for used items, where we have garbage pickup already. The used items would then go to a central collector and be routed from there to reuse or disassembly. I can’t say what is going to be the most optimal system for recovery until I get some help from computer modelling experts. I want to try various scenarios to work out the most efficient and cost-effective system.
Leasing implies that there are payments for all the products people use, and I believe that this should be not much different from the way people now use credit cards to buy things. The consumer’s ability to pay to lease products drives the whole system. Without consumers there is no production, so consumers must have jobs and these jobs must pay enough to keep the system going. The erosion of the consumer base is itself, unsustainable. That means all employers have to re-think layoffs as a quick fix for quarterly profits because it results in long-term recession. I admire the German approach to keeping their economy going, and I recommend that your readers read this article in the Wall Street Journal .
And here’s another thought to ponder: because the lease model eliminates ownership, it also eliminates consumer debt. How many people are still making payments for things that have broken down, lost their value or were consumed? In the new system, if consumers want to get rid of something, they can turn it in and cease to make payments. Again, we can tweak the system over time to achieve the highest benefits for all. As long as we maintain our sights on the goal of 100% recycling, everything else is up for discussion.
BP: What kind of change within the supply chain/ legislative support/ behaviour change (companies, governments, individuals) would make “recycling of everything” possible?
We have to look for support wherever we can get it! There’s a growing number of people who understand that our current way of living is unsustainable, and they are in governments, businesses, organizations and society in general. In many cases, they want to know what they can do and they are ready to do it. We have to give them the vision. A vision is something that engages the imagination. This is a very powerful thing because once you have a large number of people imagining something, it has a very great chance of coming into being. People begin to come up with the tactical-level ideas on their own. For government, it’s legislation like the kind we’re seeing in the EU. For corporations, it’s adopting new systems such as leasing instead of outright sales. For society, it’s changing the way we think about things like owning ‘stuff’. There will be those who fight to preserve the ‘status quo’, but in the end, it’s not an ideological battle, it’s a prudent approach to our continuation into the future based on good information.
* An article that appeared in New Scientist in 2007 titled, “Earth’s natural wealth: an Audit”, summarized a study that gave some fast-approaching dates of depletion for many critical minerals and metals.
**You may also have heard of the ‘discount’ factor in regard to resources. The way it works is this: a deposit of copper is worth X amount of money (assume that the value will remain the same in the future). The owners of the deposit are motivated to extract all of it as quickly as possible, sell it and put the money in the bank. The bank will pay interest, which means that in a couple of decades, the money will have increased quite a lot. The difference between the anticipated growth of the fund and the value of the copper is referred to as the ‘discounted’ value of the copper. This is textbook financial reasoning and for the purposes of investment, it makes conservation of resources unthinkable.
Other issues with material supply include these:
• Simultaneous development of multiple technologies that require a material, resulting in a sharp increase in demand
• Geopolitical hostilities which can cut off access to critical materials
• Dependence on the market for and production of other materials (e.g., gallium is a by-product of bauxite mining)
• Speculation on prices of materials
Some examples of materials usage and shortages:
Use: Touch-screen technology, LCD displays, solar technology, semiconductors and medical imaging
Top suppliers: China, Canada, Japan
Projected scarcity: The price of indium has shot up recently. Unless new resources are found and recycling improves, indium could be scarce by 2020.
Use: LEDs, lasers, solar cells, Blu-ray technology, satellites and radio frequency circuits
Top suppliers: China, Germany, Kazakhstan, Japan, Russia
Projected scarcity: Gallium is a by-product of the production of other, more important metals, and so its supply is entirely dependent on the demand for those other metals.
Use: High-performance capacitors in cellphones and cars, semiconductors
Top suppliers: Australia, Brazil
Projected scarcity: Tantalum will probably not be scarce until after 2030 . But a U.S. government report notes that suppliers can easily hold capacitor makers hostage to price increases. A Tantalum ore (Coltan) is found in the conflict regions of the Congo.
Source from Spectrum.IEEE.org (with some edits and additions).
Two good sources of information are these: “The Global Flows of Metals and Minerals”, available on the U.S. Geological Service website, and “Metal Stocks in Society – Scientific Synthesis”, available on the U.N. Environmental Programme’s website.
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