The need for shiny, new products not only burns a hole in our wallets, but a hole in our Earth.
“In principle, we have enough,” said Christian Hagelücken, a researcher at Umicore, a Belgium-based materials technology company. “It’s not a problem of availability – if you dig deep enough into the earth; you can do ocean mining; you can do mining in the Antarctica and so on.”
On Saturday, Hagelücken was part of a panel discussing the product sustainability.
But whether we have enough resources is not the question we need to ask ourselves, Hagelücken said. It’s about how we can use green solutions we have now and taking it one step further.
“Recycling isn’t a process,” he said. “It’s always a chain.”
It’s a chain that relies on the efficiency of the links that make it up. From collection to dismantling, and processing to refining, the original product comes full circle to be reused. This is known circular economy – the intention to restore materials for reuse and redesign.
Panelist Walter Stahel, of the University of Surrey, said the focus needs to shift from the notion of just recycling. It’s also about the money.
The key to sustainability is, in a sense, to prioritize finding the highest bidder for old products instead of the cheapest recycler. The point is to encourage the economics of reuse over creating more stuff.
“Think dollars, not waste,” Stahel said. “All of these ideas are not revolutionary. They have just taken a long time to catch on.”
The panel agreed. It’s about fixing the system and not the products, about shared use and collaboration.
Quoting Aristotle, Stahel said that true wealth lies in utilization, not ownership. The opportunity to rent products for temporary ownership allows us to practice this concept. To own something is to be able to throw it away, he said. But by sharing, less waste is created.
David Peck, of Delft University, summed up the two main solutions to the product sustainability problem. Create more sustainable products, using less critical metal material or develop new ways to use the products we have already, he said. Stop these “dueling” ideals.
“The goods of today are the products of tomorrow at the prices of yesterday,” Stahel said.