The Right Kind Of Recycling

David Roberts interviews Bill McDonough, co-author of The Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability – Designing for Abundance, about the failures of recycling:

We often talk about recycling, but we’re actually not. We are downcycling. Take a plastic water bottle. If we recycle it into a park bench, it’s actually downcycling, from a quality perspective. I’ve reused the molecules, so that’s recycling polymer. But I’ve reduced its qualities, because I mixed it with other things, hybridized it, let’s say, with other polymers and various dyes and finishes. The flower pot I made it into is going to a landfill, or potentially an incinerator. It’s downcycling, cascading down in quality, from cradle to grave, or cradle to crematorium.

Now, if I take something that’s problematic, like soft PVC, that contains plasticizers, alloys, endocrine disrupters, materials that are gassing and become dioxins that could cause cancer, and I recycle that — is that recycling good? No.

Recycling’s a process; the product is good or not depending on human values. It’s sort of like efficiency. If I’m a terrorist, and I’m efficient, it’s worse. So if I’m recycling, that’s great, but if I’m recycling things that have become carcinogenic, is that great?

Upcycling is about increasing the quality as it goes to its next use. So, that water bottle. There is a residue in the bottle from a catalytic reaction involving very low levels of antimony, which is a heavy metal. Although it may not be dangerous when you drink water out of the bottle, it is something that’s suboptimal from a cradle-to-cradle perspective. If I burn the bottle as fuel, I get anti-trioxide in the atmosphere. Not a good thing. Why would I want a system of polyesters contaminated by heavy metal, when I’d like to use them forever, again and again, safely?

Upcycling means that we’d get that bottle back and take out the antimony. It gets better. That’s what we mean by upcycling: the idea that things get better when humans touch them.