Feed the techne

We had a presentation today from some impressively smart and determined people at Orangebox, a Welsh company that makes office furniture. Their ambition is to do ‘cradle-to-cradle’ (C2C) manufacturing; that is, manufacturing where a lot of the material you use to make your new products comes from your own older products, recycled. What makes this better than recycling, conventionally understood, is that if you know how a product is made, you know how to recycle it effectively. With conventional recycling, either the consumer or an open-to-all recycler has to attempt to separate out the various metals, polypropylenes, nylons, etc. and there’s pretty good evidence that they’re not up to it. For one, even a product as apparently simple as an office chair has upwards of a couple of hundred components. Worse, where dissimilar materials are bonded to each other in the way that they tend to be – if the manufacturer means those materials not to come apart – effective recycling is more or less impossible. The higher grade plastics get irretrievably contaminated through mixing with other plastics; then the only viable destination is the base of a traffic cone, or similar. Can you recycle a traffic cone base? No: the next stop is landfill. From LCD TV casing to landfill via traffic cones might be a ten year process. This is not really recycling.

Getting to be a cradle-to-cradle manufacturer is a challenge. You have to design products that are competitive in terms of manufacturing cost and quality, and which can be separated into their constituent parts when it comes time to recycle them, but which won’t fall apart in the hands of the user. You also need to know what those parts are made of. This is more of a problem than you might think. When you buy the feedstock for plastic components, you get shipped some boxes of granules; these, when heated appropriately, will flow nicely inside your stamping tool and set into the shapes you want. What’s in those granules? The manufacturer isn’t necessarily saying. To help get around this problem, there’s the interestingly named Environmental Protection and Encouragement Agency (EPEA). For a fee, EPEA will contact a materials manufacturer and get them to say, in confidence, what’s in their product. Without giving anything away, EPEA’s chemists will then say if that product is suitable for C2C manufacturing. As a work-around, this does seem to … work.

A while back, Dsquared suggested to me that the concept of embodied energy isn’t a goer. If your aim is to select products in the interest of sustainability, you have to contend with the possibility that you simply won’t know what the true embodied energy value of a product is. C2C manufacturing has a different emphasis. It aims at closed loops; all of the stuff just goes round and round.