[Sdpg] Janet Unruh: Recycle Everything - Why We Must, How We Can

Wesley Roe and Santa Barbara Permaculture Network lakinroe at silcom.com
Sat Dec 25 12:31:07 PST 2010

Friday, August 13th, 2010 | Posted by admin
Janet Unruh: Recycle Everything - Why We Must, How We Can


Janet Unruh
Janet Unruh is a person who believes that everything can be recycled 
100% - provided we learn how to design things properly and set up the 
right systems for materials recovery. With her knowledge and 
experience in manufacturing, having worked for the last decade in the 
truck manufacturing industry, she has founded "The Institute for 
Material Sustainability" http://www.recycleeverythingbook.org/ in 
Portland, Oregon, USA where she lives. Through her book Recycle 
Everything - Why We Must, How We Can and the Institute, she hopes to 
enable industries to transition to more sustainable methods of using 
materials for manufacture and recovery through recycling.

EWTT: To start from the very title of your book, Recycle Everything: 
Why We Must, How We Can , why "must" we recycle everything?

Janet: We simply can't continue to take resources from the Earth, put 
them through our production-consumption system and dispose of them 
afterward.  Such a system, by its very nature, is not sustainable. 
Someday, we'll run into resource limitations.  Because of this, 
efforts at slowing down the throughput of materials and mitigating 
the effects of disposal don't address the problem directly and only 
delay the inevitable, which is scarcity of resources.
What we need is a cyclical system that retains all the materials 
within itself and reuses them continuously.  Such a system would 
eliminate the need for both extraction of raw materials and disposal 
of waste.  That may seem outlandish to some, but I believe that if a 
thing can be imagined, it can be engineered.  If it weren't so, we 
wouldn't have things like the iPhone or Droid, we wouldn't send 
rovers to Mars.

EWTT:  Can everything really be recycled 100%?

Janet: I believe the answer is yes.  Scientists are creating such 
things as artificial atoms and programmable matter.  Think about that 
for a moment.  If we humans are capable of designing atoms, why can't 
we have 100% recyclable materials?  We already have certain metals, 
glass and plastics that could be described as 100% recyclable, but we 
need to create more options.  We need to ask questions like, how can 
we design a material that will serve purpose X and be capable of 
being reprocessed so that it can be used for this same purpose again? 
Then we go to work on it.
Alright, so let's say our goal is to create materials that are 100% 
recyclable.  I call them 'perpetually reusable materials' in the 
book.  What does that mean?  It means that these materials should be 
stable, lossless, easily reprocessed and reused, requiring no 
additives and releasing no byproducts in reprocessing.  That's a very 
high standard and may be possible only up to a point.  I know that 
everything decays.  There's an interesting word, 'disgregation', 
which refers to the fact that molecules are constantly in motion and 
become separated from each other.  This applies to all matter.  But 
even if we are able to invent materials that are 90% recyclable, that 
eliminates 90% of extraction and waste.  What an enormous benefit 
that would be!
And let me emphasize this point:  when the material is designed, the 
method for reprocessing it and returning it to stockpiles must also 
be designed and the method has to be cost-effective.  Ideally, the 
cost of reprocessing the material is less than the cost of extracting 
raw materials.
"Look around you. The microwave oven, the cell phone, the car, 
clothing, appliances, furniture - imagine that when you're done with 
them, you give them to a collector, possibly through curb-side 
pick-up. Then all these products would go back into the system for 
100% reuse in new products. There would be no more used stuff being 
thrown on top of mountains of junk with toxic chemicals draining into 
rivers. What are the issues that need to be addressed for 100% reuse 
to become a reality? Why don't we fix the production-consumption 
system so that all the materials that enter into the system stay in 
the system? We must answer these questions. Only then can we say that 
our production-consumption system is sustainable."
(Page 8 of Recycle Everything: Why We Must, How We Can )

EWTT:  William McDonough's book " Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way 
We Make Things " is a well-known classic on sustainable materials and 
design. What inspired you to write another book on the same theme?

Janet : The book, Cradle to Cradle, Remaking the Way We Make Things, 
was a great inspiration to me but I felt that it would be difficult 
for anyone in industry to know how to apply the ideas in the book. 
There was still a large gap to be filled-a whole new system needed to 
be mapped and explained in detail.  And if you could get ideas like 
those in Cradle to Cradle accepted by management, you'd have to tell 
them what to do to implement them, step by step.  So I would say that 
I adapted many of the Cradle-to-Cradle ideas to the interests of 
industry and made the ideas operational-capable of being put into 
I have quite a bit of experience with manufacturing because I worked 
as a contractor for 10 years at one of the largest global truck 
manufacturers with factories in over a dozen countries.  My job 
enabled me to work with management in all the major departments at 
corporate headquarters as well as the workers on the assembly lines 
in the manufacturing plants.  Through this experience, I learned how 
ideas are accepted and how things get done.  I could see what was 
needed to bridge that gap and make the ideas practicable in a 
manufacturing context.

EWTT:  Is it really possible to map a system by which we can close 
the materials loop - so that resources are recycled endlessly?

Janet : Yes it is. I call this new kind of system a system for 
material sustainability.  The first thing we need is a map of this 
system to show how it would work.  This map has to be adaptable for 
products mad e of organic materials, such as wood, natural fiber, 
food waste, etc., and for inorganic materials such as metals, 
minerals, plastics, and glass.

In this map, materials never leave the system, but are passed from 
one role to another and reused in new products countless times into 
the future.  This graphic is a depiction of an inorganic system.  The 
organic version of the system routes used materials to compost and 
then to fields and forests to provide nutrients for new crops.  I 
explain these systems much more fully in the book and provide 
examples of several adaptations.
So now that we have a system, we're beginning to see a little more 
light on the subject but there's still a long way to go to make it 
workable.  For instance, what if a product isn't designed to be 
disassembled?  Well, then it is simply impractical to try to 
disassemble it.  This is an example of how the system has to be 
optimized.  When the product is designed, it has to be designed for 
easy assembly and easy disassembly.
Introduction to Systems for Material Sustainability (How to Recycle Everything)
View more presentations from Institute for Material Sustainability.

EWTT: Can you give an example where you can apply this to industry?

Janet: Sure.  Let's say that we're going to write business 
requirements for a piece of equipment, yet to be designed, that will 
disassemble a product.   And let's say in our example, that Goodlife 
(fictitious name) corporation wants to make a new washing machine and 
its disassembly plan is defined.  The disassembly plan will 
programmed into this specially-designed disassembly equipment.  Now, 
when the product is recovered from the consumer, it will be routed to 
this piece of equipment in the disassembly plant.
The business requirements for the disassembly equipment are these: 
the equipment should be able read a 3-D bar code, located on the 
washer, to receive the disassembly instructions.  As a side note, the 
reason for this is that disassembly equipment should be capable of 
disassembling multiple products.  The equipment should have the 
ability to perform actions as specified in the instructions. Now we 
can give these business requirements and the disassembly instructions 
to people who design manufacturing equipment and they can design this 
piece of equipment and write the programming for it.  This is the 
kind of detailed specification that is needed to make the entire 
system for material sustainability operational.  If we don't discuss 
things on this level of detail, we're not making sustainability 
Stakeholders and the management team must write business requirements 
such as these for the entire system.  Once the new systems, 
processes, roles, materials and equipment are set up, they must be 
optimized for efficiency and cost-effectiveness.  One of my goals is 
to find people that can design a computer modelling system for this 
purpose.  The computer system would show real-time operations in an 
animated simulation that would permit easy adaptability.  I would 
like to be able to drag and drop lean manufacturing/six sigma 
features into the operations to optimize them.
Since 1991, Xerox's efforts in recycling and remanufacturing have 
enabled them to refurbish more than 2.8 million copiers, printers and 
multifunction products. Returned products that are suitable for reuse 
undergo rigorous testing before remanufacturing. Those that cannot be 
remanufactured are disassembled, and the parts are reused or 
recycled. A small fraction of the remaining material is discarded. In 
2006 alone, Xerox collected 43,000 metric tons of equipment and 
reused or recycled 96% of it.
(Page 42 of Recycle Everything: Why We Must, How We Can )

EWTT:  How serious do you see the problem of material shortage for industry?

Janet: Very serious.  And yet, I would characterize it as being 
locked in a building with a madman rather than standing on train 
tracks and seeing a train approach from afar.  Material shortage is 
difficult to quantify simply because there is a chance that somebody 
somewhere in the world may stumble across a deposit of valuable ore 
that hadn't yet been discovered.  The true size of global deposits 
can't be ascertained with 100% accuracy.  There are, however, many 
studies available on the subject of future scarcity, and I refer to 
some of them in my book.

Our ability to manufacture products is threatened by the increasing 
scarcity of raw materials. In some cases, raw materials aren't scarce 
per se, but they are becoming more expensive to extract because the 
sources that were easily accessible have already been scraped out or 
siphoned off and remaining deposits are increasingly difficult to 
reach. The ore grades of these deposits may also be lower quality, 
and they will require a greater amount of energy to produce a ton of 
metal. Access to materials can also be overshadowed by political 
tensions, regional conflicts, and war.

We only need to turn to the news to learn about shortages. An article 
in New Scientist* magazine reports that scientists are beginning to 
realize that certain raw materials will run out, according to a study 
conducted by researchers at Yale University, the U.S. Geological 
Survey, and the University of Augsburg, Germany. Here are a few 
examples. Indium, which is used in flat-panel TVs and computer 
screens, could run out in four to 13 years. Silver could become 
depleted in between four to 29 years. Lead, used in batteries, could 
become impossible to find in eight to 42 years. Zinc could be 
exhausted by 2037; hafnium, which is important in computer chips, by 
2017, and terbium, which is used to make fluorescent light bulbs, by 
2012. Clearly, some of these shortages will have an impact on 
manufacturing soon.

(Page 2 of Recycle Everything: Why We Must, How We Can )

The price for one of these metals, indium, jumped considerably after 
the New Scientist article was published in 2007.  Several substitutes 
were developed and although sources of indium continue to shrink, the 
price of indium has decreased.  This is a kind of good news/bad news 
story.  It's good news for those who can use substitutes-they have 
bought time to continue production.  But it's bad news for those who 
absolutely must have indium.  Why?  Because market prices are not a 
reliable indicator of the remaining supply of a resource.  In fact, 
market prices are more responsive to demand.  And meanwhile, 
extractors are motivated to extract a resource as quickly as possible 
due to the discount factor**.  And so the producers who are dependent 
on indium may find themselves confronted with scarcity quite abruptly.

Touch screens and LCDs use Indium
There are those who believe that technology can surmount any 
challenge of material availability.  There are several issues with 
this.  The high-grade ores or materials within easy reach are 
discovered and extracted first, so that over time, the quality and 
accessibility of new sources diminishes.  At some point, the cost of 
extraction and processing exceeds profitability.

Technology itself is dependent on materials, so the depletion of one 
critical material can impact our ability to extract other materials. 
Many people are talking about 'peak oil', which means that production 
of petroleum products has already hit an all-time high and is 
beginning to decline.  And since there's no substitute for oil, its 
availability and price will have an enormous negative effect not only 
on materials extraction but on the entire global economy.

It may be that industry will be goaded into change by the scarcity of 
one material or another.  Manufacturers can go broke if production 
has to be shut down for an unknown length of time, competition for 
materials intensifies and they are priced out of the market, and 
viable substitutes can't be found in time.  I think it would be 
smarter by far to anticipate the inevitable than to bet on business 
as usual.

EWTT:  In the systems for material sustainability, consumers no 
longer own things; they lease them.  And manufacturers now have to 
own materials.  Please explain why this is necessary.

Janet: Okay, let me start with the manufacturers, or producers.  In 
order to continue to manufacture products, they must retain control, 
or ownership of materials.  Without materials, there is no guarantee 
that the manufacturer can continue to produce.  The systems for 
material sustainability provide producers with various tracking and 
recovery methods.  Some have suggested that material cost can be 
assessed at each point along the way, and that would make it 
profitable for someone to collect products for resale.  This could 
work for some things, such as clothes, which are often given away to 
others.  Also, with a bit of redesign to exclude toxic chemicals, we 
can make some things to be compostable-such as furniture, which could 
be made of cotton, hemp, wood and possibly biodegradable plastic.  We 
have to adapt to a world in which a material like Indium is not 
reliably available, but perhaps it is the very best material to use 
in LCD screens.  That makes it critical for producers to get that 
Indium back.

The change for consumers is that they no longer own, but instead 
lease things like appliances, electronics, some types of furniture 
and vehicles.  People like to buy stuff (as Annie Leonard likes to 
call it), but after a while, stuff breaks down and then they have to 
dispose of it somehow.  If they go out and buy new stuff, why not 
turn in the old stuff at the same time?  Or, as I suggested in my 
book, perhaps we could have curbside pickup for used items, where we 
have garbage pickup already.  The used items would then go to a 
central collector and be routed from there to reuse or disassembly. 
I can't say what is going to be the most optimal system for recovery 
until I get some help from computer modelling experts.  I want to try 
various scenarios to work out the most efficient and cost-effective 

Leasing implies that there are payments for all the products people 
use, and I believe that this should be not much different from the 
way people now use credit cards to buy things.  The consumer's 
ability to pay to lease products drives the whole system.  Without 
consumers there is no production, so consumers must have jobs and 
these jobs must pay enough to keep the system going.  The erosion of 
the consumer base is itself, unsustainable.  That means all employers 
have to re-think layoffs as a quick fix for quarterly profits because 
it results in long-term recession.  I admire the German approach to 
keeping their economy going, and I recommend that your readers read 
this article in the Wall Street Journal .
And here's another thought to ponder:  because the lease model 
eliminates ownership, it also eliminates consumer debt.  How many 
people are still making payments for things that have broken down, 
lost their value or were consumed?  In the new system, if consumers 
want to get rid of something, they can turn it in and cease to make 
payments.  Again, we can tweak the system over time to achieve the 
highest benefits for all.  As long as we maintain our sights on the 
goal of 100% recycling, everything else is up for discussion.

EWTT: What kind of change within the supply chain/ legislative 
support/ behaviour change (companies, governments, individuals) would 
make "recycling of everything" possible?
We have to look for support wherever we can get it!  There's a 
growing number of people who understand that our current way of 
living is unsustainable, and they are in governments, businesses, 
organizations and society in general.  In many cases, they want to 
know what they can do and they are ready to do it.  We have to give 
them the vision.  A vision is something that engages the imagination. 
This is a very powerful thing because once you have a large number of 
people imagining something, it has a very great chance of coming into 
being.  People begin to come up with the tactical-level ideas on 
their own.  For government, it's legislation like the kind we're 
seeing in the EU.  For corporations, it's adopting new systems such 
as leasing instead of outright sales.  For society, it's changing the 
way we think about things like owning 'stuff'.  There will be those 
who fight to preserve the 'status quo', but in the end, it's not an 
ideological battle, it's a prudent approach to our continuation into 
the future based on good information.
Janet Unruh is offering readers of Eco WALK the Talk a special price 
of US $6 to obtain the e-book version of "Recycle Everything - Why We 
Must, How We Can. Click this link to purchase the book by PayPal. 
If you need any further information, you may contact Janet by email 
or leave a comment below.

* An article that appeared in New Scientist in 2007 titled, "Earth's 
natural wealth: an Audit", summarized a study that gave some 
fast-approaching dates of depletion for many critical minerals and 
**You may also have heard of the 'discount' factor in regard to 
resources.  The way it works is this:  a deposit of copper is worth X 
amount of money (assume that the value will remain the same in the 
future).  The owners of the deposit are motivated to extract all of 
it as quickly as possible, sell it and put the money in the bank. 
The bank will pay interest, which means that in a couple of decades, 
the money will have increased quite a lot.  The difference between 
the anticipated growth of the fund and the value of the copper is 
referred to as the 'discounted' value of the copper.  This is 
textbook financial reasoning and for the purposes of investment, it 
makes conservation of resources unthinkable.
Other issues with material supply include these:
*         Simultaneous development of multiple technologies that 
require a material, resulting in a sharp increase in demand
*         Geopolitical hostilities which can cut off access to 
critical materials
*         Dependence on the market for and production of other 
materials (e.g., gallium is a by-product of bauxite mining)
*         Speculation on prices of materials
Some examples of materials usage and shortages:

Use: Touch-screen technology, LCD displays, solar technology, 
semiconductors and medical imaging
Top suppliers: China, Canada, Japan
Projected scarcity: The price of indium has shot up recently. Unless 
new resources are found and recycling improves, indium could be 
scarce by 2020.
Use: LEDs, lasers, solar cells, Blu-ray technology, satellites and 
radio frequency circuits
Top suppliers: China, Germany, Kazakhstan, Japan, Russia
Projected scarcity: Gallium is a by-product of the production of 
other, more important metals, and so its supply is entirely dependent 
on the demand for those other metals.

Child Labour: Coltan Mining in Congo
Use: High-performance capacitors in cellphones and cars, semiconductors
Top suppliers: Australia, Brazil
Projected scarcity: Tantalum will probably not be scarce until after 
2030 . But a U.S. government report notes that suppliers can easily 
hold capacitor makers hostage to price increases.  A Tantalum ore 
(Coltan) is found in the conflict regions of the Congo.
Source from Spectrum.IEEE.org (with some edits and additions).
Two good sources of information are these:  "The Global Flows of 
Metals and Minerals", available on the U.S. Geological Service 
website, and "Metal Stocks in Society - Scientific Synthesis", 
available on the U.N. Environmental Programme's website.

Further important links :
Website: The Institute for Material Sustainability 

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