Transitioning to an Economy of Reuse

trash stream from electronicsWe have wound up with a culture that has fashioned itself in the image of disposal instead of retention. Almost everything that we own has a useful life that ends when something breaks because the cost to repair it is a vast percentage of the cost of simply buying a newer, cutting-edge replacement. A glance around my own apartment uncovered few exceptions: flat screen TV, iPod, cell phone, stove, microwave, speakers—once broken none of these things could be affordably repaired. But beyond affordability, we are perpetuating a number of massive waste streams laden with the worst kinds of materials—stuff that will sit in the ground indefinitely. We need to focus on ways for retooling our economy to one that runs off of reuse.

When I was recently visiting my parents a repair man came to the house to fix a Kitchenaid dishwasher. Apparently the rope and pulley mechanism that counterweights the door, allowing it to open and close gently, had broke causing the door to slam down on those unaware of the malfunction. After a quick inspection the maintenance man looked up with a nod saying it was easily fixed and he had the part. Good news. “There is a fixed rate for the repair. It will be $148 including the parts.”

When I glanced to my mother it was clear she was a bit awestruck. She smiled uneasily and pointed out that for $600 she could get a new dishwasher. The maintenance guy could only shrug and ask if she wanted to get the work done, to which she hesitantly agreed. I could not, and still cannot, believe that ten minutes of labor and a bag of plastic parts can be worth 25% of the cost of a new machine. While hanging onto our possessions longer is clearly the more sustainable path, our consumer marketplace has made this path extremely difficult even for willing customers and sometimes financially impossible.

We’ve all had a similar problem. When that light in the center console of your car, behind the radio station keys, goes out and you spend two weeks angry at not being able to change stations in the dark, your trip to the dealership culminates in some well mannered service chap telling you that replacing that component will cost $350. This conundrum is a common occurrence in American society with companies only choosing to master the front end of the supply chain—anything that helps bring the product to market. Mechanization of product assembly lines has streamlined the construction of our society’s gadgets and drastically lowered the cost of production, but once a machine has put a gizmo together and slapped on a coat of paint, it turns into a black box with a finite lifespan.

computer television wasteSome industries stand out as repeat offenders. Automobiles, appliances and electronics are all high priced items that have varying levels of cost-effective means of salvage and reuse. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, “eWaste” is only 4% of our waste stream but is growing 2-3 times faster than any other component. Between 2000 and 2007 as many as 500 million personal computers became obsolete and entered the trash pool. Similarly, it is estimated that 9 million refrigerators/freezers, 4.5 million air conditioning units and nearly 1 million dehumidifiers are disposed of each year. Aside from come components taken as scrap metal, most is destined for a landfill.

Of course it is possible to build an industry around trying to fix the damage we have already done by disassembling things that were never made to be taken apart, but while it may be keeping nasty things from entering the ground (a worthwhile initiative) it is likely destined to be just as inefficient as the industry that is producing the problems it is trying to undo. In order to create a cyclical system that operates as an ecology of resources the mentality has to be built into each new product from the beginning of the schematic planning phases. I can tell you that the same is true for buildings. As an architect, the most successful green projects are the ones that incorporate sustainability from day one rather than trying to put green lipstick on a pig in the final stages of marketing.

How Can it Change?

There are a series of directions that our economy and its many companies can take in order to begin to change the landscape of how we buy and use products:

Build out the Industry:

It is perfectly feasible for companies to invest more in their repair and service businesses. A more established system with easier solutions could lower prices of maintenance and encourage more people to utilize the service. As the price of work falls and availability rises, fixing possessions could become a more regular part of society. The sticking point for American businesses resembles “the chicken and the egg” dilemma. Businesses would like to see a rise in demand before devoting assets and manpower to service businesses and consumers would like to see a better system before they invest in repairs. The stalemate would be difficult to break, but it could ultimately pay dividends. By having items that are repaired more often than they are sold, the face of the service industry could change across the U.S. and given all of the products to be serviced are local, these jobs would be much harder to displace to other countries. America may no longer be the country where most things are made, but it can still be the country where things are rebuilt to last.

Build to Last:

Many of our items could be built out of better components and systems that allow them to extend their anticipated lifespan. It is widely accepted that Japanese cars often last much longer, and with less maintenance costs, than those we make here in America. Granted, the rise in quality could be mirrored in a rise in cost, but that could be good. Making a larger purchase that should last longer could make people more willing to invest in a unit’s upkeep.

Build To Take Apart:

Most of our products are built to go together, but not to come apart again. Very little of what we buy can be disassembled as easily as it was constructed with its parts distributed back into material categories for sorting and reuse. Engineers could do more to design products that can be deconstructed affordably enough so that it makes economic sense to avoid discarding them into the ground. Naturally, repercussions of such an endeavor could be more exposed fasteners or connection means rather than sleek, seamless surfaces with concealed clips that only work one way.

Production and Disposal:

The ones who know a product the best are most likely the ones who designed and built it in the first place. Given the specialized nature of a growing number of products, the repair and disposal industries are being spread thinner to be experts in everything. Eventually, more companies could have departments devoted to the recollection of their own product lines in order to recycle and properly dispose of as many components as possible. One example is solar panel producer First Solar. The company includes part of the sale price of every PV panel for its recollection and complete recycling.

Charge for Waste:

One of the principal problems with petitioning businesses to repair their products or make them last longer is that the incentive for them to do so is limited. At the end of the day, companies can make more profit from selling a mediocre product and then selling a replacements every two years than building and maintaining a quality item. Affixing some kind of cost to dispose of choice items (cars, appliances, electronics) could help guide a change in the marketplace to favor recycling and prolonged use. After all, part of the problem with our economy is the “externalities” that are never factored into the bottom line. The more it costs to throw things away, the more sense it may make to take waste streams and turn them back into resource streams, thus imparting them with a new inherent value. Eventually we would price trash out of existence.

All of these methods are ones that primarily target companies, but the role of consumers should not be overlooked. One of the silver linings of our capitalist economy is the response that companies give to the demands of a buying public. If reuse is something that is important to you, then support the companies that are making an effort to change their business to meet that growing demand. By burning the candle at both ends we can get to the solution that much faster.

Photo Credits: ,