I’ve been reading a lot of non-fiction lately, looking for some kind of consensus about what kind of future we’re facing, and exactly what sort of thing we should be doing in order to deal with that. Sadly, while there is general consensus that the environment and human society are in sad shape, there’s not a lot of definitive advice beyond the usual ‘lobby your government to be better’.
So I approached Cradle to Cradle with enthusiasm, thinking, Finally, a book with prescriptive advice, instead of another one describing the problems – a book about how our society should be restructured! (I realise there are a few around, but I find most books with ideas about how to actually change things are usually twenty years out-of-date, think Who Owns the Sun?).
And to be fair, Cradle to Cradle is about precisely that. The central thesis of the book is that we currently have a society where products are developed from a source, are consumed and produce waste, but we ought to have a society where the components of products are infinitely recyclable. Instead of goods running from cradle to grave, they should run cradle to cradle.
Because mostly, they don’t. When a plastic bottle is recycled, it doesn’t become another plastic bottle; it becomes a speed bump or sound deflector on a freeway. When cars are recycled, they’re not taken apart; they’re melted into an amorphous metallic mess with little value. And that’s without factoring in the large number of toxic chemicals melted into that metal from the plastic car furnishings.
The idea is that instead of creating goods with all these nasty hidden chemicals and problems, we should start building products out of things that can be decomposed within short timeframes, or recycled indefinitely as the basic components.
So rather than recycling paper that wasn’t designed to be recycled, we print our newspapers on plastic sheets with plant-based dyes. Then, when we’re done with them, we can wipe off the dye and print a new newspaper, which is infinitely simpler than the wetting, shredding, bleaching and reconstructing of paper fibres that’s needed to recycle regular paper. (Also, people are apparently developing allergies to recycled paper, so watch out for that.)
I very much like this sort of idea. I really do, and I don’t want to be the girl who kicks this sandcastle in. But I just don’t know how realistic this sort of thing is. One idea given a lot of space is decomposable detergents. Rather than release unpleasant chemicals into the environment every time we do dishes, the plan is to design detergents that both break down and deliver new nutrients to the watercourses in which they will eventually run. It’s a very nice idea. However, has anyone stopped to consider the problems of eutrophication? It’s what happens when you dump too many nutrients into a water environment; algae plants get too much food, go nuts, and suffocate everything else in the water. How sustainable is that?
But maybe that’s just picking at nits.
So here’s a bigger concern: if we design all our products into the future on the grounds that we’re recycling them indefinitely, what are we going to do with all the old ones? There aren’t any useful ideas presented on what we should do with everything already in landfill, or the million or so bottles and plastic cups disposed of in America and India every day (a fat total of none of which are recycled).
Authors Braungart and McDonough argue that the course we’re on today is all about efficiency, and being less bad, and why being less bad is no good. And yes, I agree, and yes, I get it. But I also think we’re trying efficiency first for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it’s cheaper so meets less resistance (a weak reason). Secondly, we know we have a problem, and we’re trying to deal with it on the existing terms. Einstein would disapprove, but that’s how it goes sometimes.
Here’s my real issue with this idea: if we’re going to start creating goods that are infinitely recyclable, we’re going to need to extract new resources to do it. Because, as has been beaten into you by the last page of the book, the products we’ve already used aren’t recyclable. So we can’t reuse those to do new things. We’ve got to go back to that rainforest, degraded paddock, overused fishery and get new stuff to start again. And that sounds like an especially bad idea to me.
I really feel we should be using what we’ve already got, not pretending we can start all over again from the word go. It’s a nice idea. It’s just not realistic.