Recycling is becoming firmly entrenched in society. Kids in school are taught the merits of recycling paper, plastics, and the like, and are successfully shaming their parents into changing their behavior.
Green building programs promote job-site recycling. This is all well and good, but it occurs to me that the problem is much larger and systemic than simply figuring out what to do with the waste that we create. What we need to do is figure out how to eliminate waste. By that I don’t mean just being better about ordering our materials so we end up with less waste; we need to strive for eliminating the concept of “waste” entirely.
Lessons from the past
When Henry Ford gave orders to his suppliers for his early cars, he included tight specifications for the wood crates, which he reused for the floorboards on the assembly line. The boards were cut to size and provided for free by his vendors. Ford successfully eliminated one waste stream by turning it into a raw material requiring no shipping or processing.
As far back as the 19th century, mills shipped their grain in bulk sacks, which were then turned into clothing by millions of customers. This practice became so popular that the bag mills began printing decorative patterns on the inside of the bags to make the resulting clothes more attractive. Customers anxiously awaited each year’s new pattern, and people all over the country would step out in matching clothes each season after their bags were empty.
Cabinets and Cheerios
In our current high-volume/big-box society where the lowest price rules, the products we purchase have been manufactured thousands of miles away, and so require extensive disposable packaging to keep them safe on their long journey to store shelves. From light fixtures to kitchen cabinets to flat-screen TVs to Cheerios, virtually everything we buy comes packaged for the convenience of the seller and shipper in virtually indestructible packaging made of cheap, often nonrecyclable material. This places a burden on the environment that most take no responsibility for.
Can we shift or are we just shiftless?
Construction waste is a systemic problem that cannot be solved until we take a hard look at how we live, including the materials we use to build our homes. I am not naÃ¯ve enough to think that we can eliminate all waste, but I do think that with some careful consideration of the products we use and where we get them from, we can reduce the amount of waste we produce. Locally produced products require shorter shipping distances and less protective packaging, meaning savings on transportation costs and greenhouse gas emissions, as well as less trash to discard or recycle.
A “buy local” approach will require a paradigm shift in the business of building, but I believe that it is a necessary change for us to remain (or become!) a truly sustainable society.