Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

How many of you remember these words when growing up?


I guess more of us are getting accustomed to the buzzwords green and sustainable instead. Personally, I have a hard time reading all the press about green and sustainable design without hopping on my soapbox. Whatever happened to common sense?

I remember being young and wondering why in the world grandma was reusing that tinfoil to cover the leftovers. "Why not just use a clean piece?" I thought to myself. But growing up after the Great Depression, when Madonna was becoming famous by being a Material Girl, it was hard to fathom the Land of Plenty getting full on waste. But sure enough, as far back as two decades ago those with foresight were professing a better lifestyle, one in which every consumer would reduce, reuse, and recycle. So although new buzzwords are abounding, the concept has been around forever. Thus my question, what happened to common sense?

I think the problem was that common sense was thrown out with symbol for environmentalism. The symbol, the triangle of arrows pointing to reduce, reuse, recycle, implied that all three methods were equivalent. I, the consumer, have no reason to reduce or reuse because I'll just recycle it "all." Of course, the entire energy equation wasn't being looked at back then, so understanding how much more entropy was created by recycling instead of reducing wasn't considered. That's why I happen to prefer to waste hierarchy now being used and shown at top. It defines that reducing and reusing are more beneficial than recycling. It is also where we as engineers come in, and where all the talk on sustainability comes in.

You see, reusing isn't possible for a consumer if the product was not designed with reuse in mind to begin with. Take cell phones, for example. I get a new cell phone every two years. Why? Because if I don't get a new one, I don't get the new features; and the only feature I use is the phone part. But my phone service is spotty, sketchy, and terrible two years from now because my cell phone doesn't communicate well with the updates to the network. I'd love to hold on to my phone for longer, but I can't. There's only so much a software update can do.

Take another example. I have three pocket watches at home. One I bought because it looked cool, the other two were my grandfather's. All three still work, none use batteries. You think I'll be handing my grandson my cell phone someday? Probably not. What about other products? I buy a new pair of shoes each year, sometimes two pair. I remember my mother taking my dad's work boots in to get repaired - not buying new ones. Why are the shoes I own today not worth repairing but shoes made just over a decade ago were?

Now that I've asked the questions, what is the answer? Saul Griffith calls the answer "heirloom design." It's starts with the designer and engineer working out the entire life cycle of the product, and then designing it to last longer... generations longer. By doing so, the energy cost of the unit significantly decreases because the cost of product birth and death is amortized over more years. This reduces per product entropy.

And the benefits to the consumer abound: a single one-time buy of a product, a lifetime of use, energy savings, implied cost savings. I think the only person not open to this idea would be Alfred P. Sloan (who is credited with introducing planned obsolescence into American manufacturing during his days at General Motors). I'm sure corporations everywhere are fighting the trend for sustainable design because it means fewer products sold. Sprint and Apple aren't going to sell too many cell phones if each one lasts for 20 years. That will be the real challenge for engineers - to design sustainable products while bringing bottom line increases to their corporate pocketbooks.

Other cool links:
Wattzon - Saul Griffith's website to determine energy of a product.
ASME article on heirloom design.
Environmental Timeline.