Designing with waste

In his convincing book, Cradle to Cradle, Bill McDonough argues that we need to eliminate the concept of waste. In a nutshell, he states that everything we manufacture should be able to be returned either directly to the earth with no toxic byproduct or back into the manufacturing cycle with no loss in quality of materials. With such a system, nothing is wasted.

I was reminded of McDonough when I read an article in the New York Times by Jim Robbins, entitled New Uses for Glut of Small Logs From Thinning of Forests (January 10, 2006, page D4), which reports on the growing interest in using logs that previously were considered waste because they were too thin to be marketable. Generally such logs are simply burned. Recently, however, some small outfits have created a market for this “waste.” One company featured in the article, North Slope Sustainable Wood, markets small diameter larch for flooring and other building components.

Reusing waste is still a pretty radical idea despite years of environmental activism and growing environmental problems. Yes, we do have fairly wide-spread recycling, and companies are beginning to adjust their manufacturing processes to reuse or recycle their waste products, but by and large, our society is still a throw-away culture. It’s easier and cheaper to junk something than to get it repaired, assuming you can even find someone to repair it in the first place.

Consider the issue on a personal level. I have a big supply of old hinges and knobs, electrical wire, wirenuts, switches and receptacles, nails and screws, tools, scraps of wood, rolls of screening, tarpaper, insulation and plastic, and paint stored in my basement that I comb through when I need to build or repair something. I like tinkering with things and coming up with patches for the small problems that pop up at home. Fifty years ago, making do with what was available was common, but I don’t know many people who do this anymore, at least not in the metropolitan area where I live. What has become of the “handyman”? (Let’s call it the handyperson, even though the term seems a bit awkward.)

Perhaps we need to create more of a handyperson approach at a larger level, within the entire design/build community for example. Hopefully, more companies like North Slope will pop up, marketing useful products that were previously considered to be waste. Because designers are the source of product information for their clients, I believe we have an ethical obligation to spend time educating ourselves as to what’s available and consider recommending these products in our projects. Reusing a resource that would otherwise be tossed is just one aspect of sustainable design and one step toward eliminating the concept of waste altogether, but its an important one.

This is, in effect, designing with waste. It makes sense.

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