Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rethink

No mere slogan, it's becoming the mantra for materials management: reduce, reuse, recycle.

| August/September 2009

Excerpted from Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization.

"Reduce, Reuse, Recycle" isn't just a set of buzzwords or empty rhetoric. There is vast worldwide potential for reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by reducing our use of materials. We can begin with the major metals — steel, aluminum, and copper — and continue onto the recycling and composting of most household garbage. The idea applies to designing cars, appliances, and other products so they can be easily disassembled for reuse or recycling. 

Germany and Japan are requiring that products such as automobiles, household appliances, and office equipment be designed for easy disassembly and recycling. In May 1998, the Japanese legislature enacted a tough appliance recycling law that prohibits discarding household appliances such as washing machines, TVs, or air conditioners. Consumers bear the cost of disassembling appliances in the form of a fee to recycling firms, so there is strong pressure to design appliances so that they can be more efficiently disassembled.

Closely related to this concept is that of remanufacturing. Caterpillar has emerged as a leader within the heavy industry sector. At a plant in Corinth, Miss., the company recycles some 17 truckloads of diesel engines a day. These engines are disassembled by hand by workers who do not throw away a single bolt or screw. Once the engine is disassembled, it is reassembled with all worn parts repaired. The resulting engine is as good as new. Caterpillar’s engine remanufacturing division is racking up $1 billion a year in sales and growing at 15 percent annually, contributing impressively to the company’s bottom line.

Another emerging industry is airliner recycling. Boeing and Airbus are currently vying to see which company can dismantle jetliners most efficiently. The goal is to recycle 90 percent of the plane. With more than 3,000 airliners already put out to pasture and many more to come — this retired fleet has become the equivalent of an aluminum mine.

With personal computers becoming obsolete every few years as technology advances, European information technology firms are getting into electronics recycling. Because European law requires that manufacturers pay for the collection, disassembly, and recycling of toxic materials in electronic equipment, manufacturers have begun to focus on how to disassemble everything from computers to cell phones. Nokia, for example, has designed a cell phone that will virtually disassemble itself.

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