If we look to nature we can find solutions and answers for designing the things we make. In the natural world things are designed so that when their life is spent, the materials from which they were made can be used as materials to make other things. A leaf dies, and its decayed organic matter becomes food for a tree. An animal is killed and its matter becomes food for another animal. In nature, nothing is wasted.
We need to apply these same principles to the things we make. We need to stop and plan for the future of the item we are making: “When the usefulness of this thing I’m building has served its purpose and/or worn out, what can it become”? And the correct answer is not “junk to be thrown away in a landfill or ocean.” As part of the design of that product, there should be a stated purpose for its next life.
The two most polluting containers we are using today are plastic bags and aluminum cans. Stopping the motion of destructive forces already in motion is not always easy. There is the ingrained notion of “this is the way it is done.” And of course, there are many who are financially invested in the way things are done now. Usually improvements and new ways of doing things are brought about in interim steps on the path to new and better replacement. And this takes time.
Steps to replacing the old way with a new and better way:
Step One: Fully realize and understand how damaging to the people and the planet the old way of doing things is.
This is an important step as it provides motivation for going to the extra mile to remake/reuse these objects. This information can also be used to overcome objections to those who don’t want to change. Let’s use the example of the aluminum cans and plastic bags.
The people of the world go through 180 billion aluminum beverage cans a year; enough to build dozens of towers to the moon. More than one million tons of aluminum containers and packaging (soda cans, TV dinner trays, aluminum foil) are thrown away each year. Americans throw away enough aluminum every three months to rebuild our entire commercial air fleet. Last year, approximately 36 billion aluminum cans were landfilled. [From “The Secret Life of the Aluminum Can” – WIRED magazine]
About 7% of the earth’s crust is aluminum, making it the third most abundant element after oxygen and silicon. Aluminum production starts with the raw material bauxite. Bauxite is a mineral containing 15-25 percent aluminum found mostly around the Equator. Bauxite is located close to the surface. Thus mining destroys ecosystems on the surface, results in land erosion. The tropical forest areas are most threatened by this mining. [Source: https://www.hydro.com/en/about-aluminium/Aluminium-life-cycle/Bauxite-mining- Accessed 05/6/2018]
If not recycled, aluminum cans will stay in a landfill up to 500 years before it oxidizes. However, recycling aluminum is not a “cure-all” either. Recycling aluminum requires only five percent of the energy required to manufacture new aluminum from bauxite. However, recycling aluminum produces many toxic chemicals that are released into the air. Furthermore, recycling aluminum produces a waste product called "dross" that is highly toxic and has to be buried in landfills. This dross must be tightly sealed in containers so that it doesn’t leak out and enter groundwater.
Our planet is becoming increasingly contaminated by our unnecessary use of plastic bags. It is estimated the average American family takes home almost 1,500 plastic shopping bags a year. According to Waste Management, only 1 percent of plastic bags are returned for recycling. The rest end up in landfills as litter. Up to 80 percent of ocean plastic pollution enter the ocean from land. Like aluminum cans, it takes plastic bags about 500 years to breakdown. However, plastic bags become micro-plastics that absorb toxins and continue to pollute the environment.
Recycling is not a solution to the plastic bag problem. It simply keeps them out of landfills and the environment for a little longer. Bags should not be returned to the grocery store for recycling until we’ve gotten as much use out of them as possible. We need to reduce the number of new bags we use, reuse them as much as possible, and bring them back for recycling when we can no longer use them.
Step Two: Figure out interim use(s) for the material that can keep the bags or cans out of landfills for as long as possible.
For Plastic Grocery Store Bags
The best solution for reusing items is to use them for the same purpose for which they were originally designed, using little or no labor or tools. Thus for the grocery store plastic sacks, the best way to reuse them would be to put one inside another so the sacks have two thicknesses and take them back to the grocery store the next time you go. This extends their lifetime of usefulness for several trips instead of just one. It prevents more waste resulting from using more plastic bags.
When the sacks can no longer be used with minimum adjustments, design a way to use the plastic material into even more durable sacks. This is where the creativity of makers comes into play. For example, you could cut strips of plastic from the sacks, melt them together with an iron and knit into a plastic bag. This sturdy bag would last for years.
For Aluminum Cans
At least at the moment, I don’t have an idea of how these cans might be reused for containing soft drinks. My only suggestion to date is to deconstruct them and use the aluminum to create decorative objects that people would want to keep as art objects for their homes and gardens. Aluminum cans can easily be cut and deconstructed with an ordinary pair of craft scissors. From there, it is up to the maker’s imagination what can be done with this material.
Step Three: Design better containers using materials that have the potential to live another life.
This of course takes longer than steps one or two, but it is in thinking and doing that better solutions emerge. And when we think and make with others, the magic of collaboration often bubbles to the surface, bringing with it unexpected solutions.
And these are just a few of the reasons why I’m hoping that we will be able to establish a place for the Garland Area Makerspace in my community.
Join the Garland Area Makerspace!
We meet at the North Garland Branch Library - Second and Fourth Tuesday of the Month at 7PM
North Branch Garland Library - 3845 North Garland Avenue - Garland Texas 75040