When most people think of things that are environmentally friendly they think of something like a plastic bottle that can be recycled or a low-energy light bulb. Through pivoting slightly from the most damaging practices companies often think that they are creating innovative solutions, but really they are simply walking towards the same problems rather than sprinting towards them. After all, finding something that is less damaging is still damaging the world.
One of the elements that has created this is the push towards consumerism around the world. To consume is defined by The Cambridge English Dictionary as ‘to destroy’, with synonyms including deplete, waste, drain, exhaust, and devour. When you think of consumables this is certainly the case, if you buy an apple then eat it, it has been consumed, but increasingly everything we buy is a consumer product with a use by date. From phones that become obsolete in 3 years, to TVs that stop working in under a decade. Once these kinds of products are broken or upgraded, they may be handed down or sold, but eventually will end up in a landfill, because there is no way to reuse any of the materials within them.
Cradle to Cradle design, a concept created by Michael Braungart and William McDonough, works on the understanding that material use in the world should be cyclical and products need to be designed to be reused. A prime example would be the use of lead in consumer electronics. The damage lead does is often in disposal, with the metal creating runoff that destroys the soil and ecosystems. If it wasn’t disposed of and was instead reused, this would bypass the most damaging elements of its use.
Ironically, this isn’t a new idea, but more one that saw a significant decline following the prevalence of mass consumerism, with glass milk bottles being a prime example. The damage they do to the environment is significantly less than any modern plastic equivalent purely because they allow the bottles to be returned and reused for the same purpose. Companies like Desso in The Netherlands, who provide carpet tiles, have adopted this same practice, creating carpet tiles that can be reused and then recycled for the same purpose at the end of their life without using harmful chemicals or pollutants.
This kind of model is something that makes a huge amount of sense, especially when you look at electronics which have become an issue for landfills, with over 1.8 million tons being sent to landfills in the US in 2013 according to the Electronic TakeBack Coalition. This causes issues because there are some very damaging chemicals used in their manufacture, which are then leached into the soil, making it practically unusable in the future. According to DoSomething.org, electronics make up 2% of trash in landfills, but is responsible for 70% of all toxic waste Through designing electronics that can be easily stripped back and reused, companies can both decrease their environmental impact and save a huge amount on future material sourcing. There are several companies who already do something similar, Apple, for instance, use a robot named Liam, which deconstructs all used iPhones which then allows the material to be recycled and reused.
It requires a different mindset to that of most companies and also requires a change in consumer behavior - which will be the most difficult element in the change process. There is little doubt that it will cost more to create these kinds of products. After all they will need to be of considerably higher quality than most mass-produced products today, which means fewer will be bought, but each will be around for longer. It means that changes in fashions will be impacted and manufacturers will see fewer year-to-year sales as their products will last for longer.
However, there are ways to make this process work and it is going to become increasingly necessary as the bulk of everything manufactured today uses elements that have a limited supply. We have a choice to make - either produce inferior products that cost considerably more as the components cost more to source in the future, or products that cost more today but will maintain quality and protect resources today.