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Understanding Cradle to Cradle Recycling
By Michael Arms

We promote and practice the three R's - "reduce, reuse, recycle" to reduce the negative impact of our profligate lifestyle and often unnecessary products on the environment, and then we step back, satisfied in the thought that when we recycle we're making the right choice. And why not? We've just helped reduce the volume of solid waste that's going to be deposited in our landfills (or worse, in the oceans), we've done a fantastic job in helping save the environment.

But, are we really choosing the best option when we recycle?

In 2002, William McDonough and Michael Braungart published a book called "Cradle to Cradle: Remaking The Way We Make Things." In this visionary book, they point out that recycling, as it is done today, is actually "downcycling" or "cradle to grave" recycling. We craft floating buoys from styrofoam or produce news print out of white paper. The new products we create out of used materials are actually lesser in quality to the original (due to materials degradation or contamination) or utilize just a fraction of it (the remainder ending up in the dump sites as toxic waste).

Differentiate this with the way nature disposes of its waste. When a tree creates a thousand flowers to reproduce or replicate itself, it is highly likely that only one of those blooms will actually become a new tree. But, we don't find the 999 other blooms wasted since all these fall down to the earth as nutrients to help begin the tree's next reproduction cycle. In nature, there is no such thing as waste. Waste equals food, everything goes back to the earth as fertilizer. This is known as sustainability, every part contributes to "sustain" the cycle and the process is replicated unendingly without any unusable waste.

Cradle-to-cradle recycling is the appropriation of this very natural and highly efficient concept of sustainability into our manufacturing methods right at the very beginning of the process - in the design or conceptualization of the finished product. Unusable excess is a result of inadequate conceptualization. Architects, designers, and engineers will have to think of the eventual handling of their products from the very beginning, how these gadgets (with ALL of their parts) can be reused or reintroduced into the production cycle as "technical nutrients" or rapidly biodegraded and returned safely to the earth. None wasted, every part reusable or recyclable - that is the underlying idea of cradle-to-cradle recycling.

A lady who goes to the market chooses between plastic bags or paper bags for her groceries. A town council in Germany debates if their town should keep using coal or use palm oil for electricity generation. In our daily lives, we often get trapped into "lesser of two evils" type of decisions. Plastic will remain for thousands of years and coal is the most polluting of all the fuels we use. Conversely, paper production kills rain forests, and palm oil production threatens extinction to orangutans. Lesser evils. Since the dawn of the industrial era, we've been boxed into this notion of destructive choices.

Cradle-to-cradle recycling debunks this very notion of limited choices. When sustainability is introduced and incorporated in the very design of the product, the options become numerous for us. The authors call cradle to cradle recycling as the "next industrial revolution" and this "thinking outside of the box" may just be the solution we all need to address the world's waste problems.

Paper bag or plastic bag? Why not an "edible bag?"

Michael Arms contributes articles to the Pacebutler Recycling and Environmental blog and maintains several Squidoo lenses on recycling and the environment. Pacebutler Corporation is one of several US trading companies which buy used cell phones directly from US cell phone users. You can also donate cell phones to your preferred charity or non-profit through Pacebutler.

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