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  • Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.

Everything old could be new again
September 17, 2009 - 5:01pm

Okay, maybe it's just me. (Mrs. R. tells me it often is.) But a recent item I received from Environmental Leader (a business-focused environmental newsletter) kind of rubbed me the wrong way. Not because the effort it described was ill-intended or ill-designed. Because what it spoke of shouldn't have been necessary.

To put things in perspective, I remember a series of so-called public service announcements put together by the Glass Bottle Institute. The ads proclaimed the wonders of -- you guessed it -- glass bottles. The line that got stuck in my mind was "... and remember -- glass bottles are recyclable. Old bottles can be ground up and used to make new ones."

Now, I'm old enough to remember when old bottles -- at least, old soda bottles -- could be washed out and refilled many times over. No grinding, no making new ones. The old one was quite good enough. In fact, we used to compare the manufacturing dates on the bottom to see who got the oldest (or the newest) bottle. As it happened, the bottling plant was fairly close by, the delivery and collection routes were pretty short, all in all it was probably a pretty energy-efficient operation. (Although, I'm sure, less fully automated than today's business processes.)

So I'm not a huge fan of the word "recyclable". I like "recycled" somewhat better, but "reused" is better still and "reduced" is best of all.

That's why this news item -- about a partnership between 3M and a commercial recycler to encourage consumers to save their Scotch Tape dispensers (the disposable ones), collect them in batches of 50, ship them to the recycler who will then ship them back to 3M to be reused -- kind of leaves me cold. In terms of the behavior of consumers, I guess it's a step in the right direction. But as an overall process, it seems too ungainly to make a dent in GHG emissions, petrochemical use, or anything else. And -- more important -- it's a not totally unreasonable answer to a totally wrong questions.

See, I'm also old enough to remember when houses -- like many offices today -- had more or less permanent Scotch Tape dispensers. Substantial things with removable, refillable wheels. You didn't buy a whole new dispenser with your roll of tape, you bought a roll of tape and (if you cared to) put it in your dispenser. In fact, when I was a kid, even the lightweight plastic dispensers you could buy with a roll of tape already in them could be taken apart and refilled. No need to invest in an expensive special-purpose piece of equipment, but no need to buy a new dispenser each time, either.

So, any time I learn of a new program to allow me to recycle the packaging on any consumer good, my first thought is about whether the packaging was necessary in the first place. And packaging isn't limited to cardboard boxes, blister packs or corrugated cartons. Packaging can be part of what we think of as a consumable product. When it is, there may be an opportunity to make that part of the product less consumable.

I wonder if I can convince our food service folks to start bottling Greenback-specific beverages. (Are any schools already doing something similar?)

I've bought beverages in returnable, refillable bottles within the last 15 years. So good old soap-and-water technology must still work just fine.


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