A New Materials Economy

In nature, one-way linear flows do not long survive. Nor, by extension, can they long survive in the expanding economy that is a part of the earth’s ecosystem. The challenge is to redesign the materials economy so that it is compatible with nature, as I write in Chapter 12 of Plan B 2.0 (available freely online). The throwaway economy that has been evolving over the last half-century is an aberration, now itself headed for the junk heap of history.One of the keys to reducing materials use is recycling steel, the use of which dwarfs that of all other metals combined. Steel use is dominated by the automobile, household appliance, and construction industries. Among steel-based products in the United States, automobiles are the most highly recycled. Cars today are simply too valuable to be left to rust in out-of-the-way junkyards. In the United States, roughly 71 percent of all steel produced in 2003 was from scrap, leaving 29 percent to be produced from virgin ore.

Germany and, more recently, Japan are requiring that products such as automobiles, household appliances, and office equipment be designed so that they can be easily disassembled and their component parts recycled. With consumers bearing the cost of disassembling appliances in the form of a disposal fee to recycling firms, the pressure to design appliances so they can be more easily and cheaply disassembled is strong.

With computers becoming obsolete every few years as technology advances, the need to be able to quickly disassemble and recycle them is a paramount challenge in building an eco-economy.

In addition to measures that encourage the recycling of materials are those that encourage the reuse of products. Finland, for example, has banned the use of one-way soft drink containers. The result is a sharply reduced flow of garbage to landfills.

Even more fundamental than the design of products is the redesign of manufacturing processes to eliminate the discharge of pollutants entirely. Many of today’s manufacturing processes evolved at a time when the economy was much smaller and when the volume of pollutants was not overwhelming the ecosystem. More and more companies are now realizing that this cannot continue.

Government procurement policies can be used to dramatically boost recycling. For example, the Clinton administration issued an Executive Order in 1993 requiring that all government-purchased paper contain 20 percent or more post-consumer waste by 1995 (increasing to 25 percent by 2000). Since the U.S. government is the world’s largest paper buyer, this created a strong incentive for paper manufacturers to incorporate wastepaper in their manufacturing process.

New technologies that are less material-dependent also reduce materials use. Cellular phones, which rely on widely dispersed towers or on satellites for signal transmission, now totally dominate telephone use in developing countries, thus sparing them investment in millions of miles of copper wires.

The most pervasive policy initiative to dematerialize the economy is the proposed tax on the burning of fossil fuels, a tax that would reflect the full cost to society of mining coal and pumping oil, of the air pollution associated with their use, and of climate disruption. A carbon tax will lead to a more realistic energy price, one that will permeate the energy-intensive materials economy and reduce materials use.

The challenge in building an eco-economy materials sector is to ensure that the market is sending honest signals. To help the market to tell the ecological truth, we need not only a carbon tax, but also a landfill tax so that those generating garbage pay the full cost of getting rid of it.

For details on a Plan B economy, see Plan B 2.0: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble, available for free downloading.

Tags: Recycling

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