Original article published 28 April, 2022
[5-10 minute read]
Steel is the most recycled material in the world. It can be continuously recycled without any damage or degradation to its properties and is often used as a standalone piece (steel beams, for example), so in essence it's ideal for recycling. Confusion around recycling arises when multiple materials combine to produce one item. Throw into the mix - intricate pieces, springs, fixings, most of which are needed to function if we're basing this on present-day forms.
Just because products have been created the same way for decades, does it mean they can't be evaluated for change, and what's stopping us? We look at the modern-day surfboard, along with other common household outlaws, from a list of items that could almost certainly benefit from being reimagined with a blank canvas.
Here's a piece of sporting equipment that hasn't changed much in over 60 years, this could be due to the low-cost and high-performance characteristics provided by PU/EPS foam and polyester or epoxy resins. They're light yet fragile, and contain a mix of materials that are difficult to pull apart. If it was to be designed with recycling in mind, then perhaps a modular construction is the solution - that somehow allows for separation. Making a surfboard from just one material (ideally timber!) ensures a much simpler pathway to disposal.
It's been reported that softboards (or 'foamies') emit up to 50% less carbon in the manufacturing process, when compared to a regular PU foam + resin surfboard. However, it's worth noting that all layers of a softboard are glued together. As the adhesives are heated with molecules of the other synthetic components (EVA and polycarbonate layers) – it's virtually impossible to ever separate those materials again.
Broken umbrellas sticking out of trash cans is a familiar sight on rainy days. As strong as the new fancy tech umbrellas are, their shape and the way we use them in strong winds means it's inevitable they will break. They’re a mix of plastic, metal, wood and fabric; attached at seams that are quite tricky to separate. You can recycle parts of your umbrella but not likely all of it.
Incredibly, more than 5,000 models are on sale on Amazon. One city, Songxia in China, is able to make 500 million a year in more than 1,000 dedicated factories (info via BBC). The humble umbrella is a great example of a product that requires functionality as its primary purpose, but could it be redesigned and be easier to take apart and recycle? Made from just one or two materials? The reverse-folding KAZbrella is going some way to ensuring a new umbrella isn't needed after each windy day.
Most mattresses these days end up in landfill sites. They're one of the largest and most awkward of household items and are rarely recycled. Charity/thrift stores will often reject them for fear of contamination or bedbug infestations, recycling isn’t profitable enough, and most territories don’t have effective recycling programs in the first place. Most of the disruptive mattress start-ups offer 100-day comfort guarantees, during which consumers can return their mattresses for a full refund if for any reason they aren't satisfied. Theoretically, consumers can switch between providers for brand new mattresses at no cost. In a recent case study, Wall Street Journal reporter, Stephanie Yang, calculated that if she took advantage of most offers available, she could sleep on a free mattress for eight years.
It's difficult to recycle materials from a mattress because there isn't much value on the secondary market; warped springs, dirty fabrics, rotting timber, worn foam and fibres. Mattress design is in need of a urgent rethink. Could a one-piece, plant-based foam be used instead of various elements? This example by Peacelily consists of natural latex foam, latex glue and organic cotton.
#4. Children's Toys
Often overlooked in the recycling conversation, toys are made from various materials such as different types of plastics and metals, ensuring they're a nightmare to recycle. The modern day customer typically expects brand new toys, especially for birthdays and holidays, but regifting or sourcing from charity/thrift stores is one way to side-step the chaos and save yourself some money. Plastic toys, which tend to be inexpensive and vibrantly coloured, account for most of the market, and while they pose the same risks as any other plastic item, these cheap products often have short lifespans and are pretty hard to recycle.
"Recycled plastics are rarely able to be used in the process of manufacturing toys due to the uncertainty of the chemical composition of recycled plastic," Natasha Crookes from the British Toy and Hobby Association says. "It could contain one of the thousands of chemicals restricted under toy safety legislation."
Items made from wood, cotton, metal and natural rubber are considered feasible alternatives to plastic toys. Terracycle have stepped up to the challenge, not just with toys, with their Zero Waste Box system, which can be ordered and delivered to your door ready for filling up with unloved toys. Return via the prepaid label and they will do the rest. However, the high price of purchasing one of these boxes (AU$194 and $295 for small and medium size boxes, respectively) is likely to put individuals off. Pooling together old toys with neighbours/friends is recommended.
Every minute around the world, over 300,000 disposable nappies enter landfills, are incinerated, or pollute the environment - including our oceans. It takes one cup of crude oil to make one nappy. Staggering stats, and because of the mix of materials (and the addition of human waste) they are very hard to recycle. One alternative is “biodegradable” or “compostable” nappies, which promise a solution to this multi-layered problem: the convenience of a single-use product with less guilt about what happens after its purpose is met. However, the majority of biodegradable or compostable nappies still contain plastic elements, often the sticky tabs or the outer film.
Nappies are arguably one of the hardest environmental conundrums to solve, as they are an essential tool for raising a baby but there's very little R&D on the horizon in term of alternatives. Israeli-based innovators, UBQ, have come up with a solution for recycling difficult waste (including used nappies) by transforming waste into thermoplastic pellets. What happens when this material is finished with is another question altogether, but it's better than nothing. Washable nappies are another solution but could be scrutinised given the amount of energy and water needed to wash them.
To recycle a common fluorescent light bulb, as an example, they should be pre-broken, be washed to remove contaminants, a distiller should be used in extracting the elemental mercury, and then the metals, glass, and plastics should be broken down into smaller pieces. Finally, the materials should be separated and sent to recycling / resource recovery centres to be turned into something new and for further recycling. Not an easy process.
Many lightbulbs also contain mercury, which is highly toxic. If these bulbs are not disposed of correctly, the mercury can leach into water systems and cause untold damage. Lightbulbs are so critical in our existence and have revolutionised work and home settings, but they are massively problematic in an environmental and recycling context. Given the electrical intricacies involved with household and commercial lightbulbs, a version that can be easily recycled is something that requires thinking way outside the box.
The outer casing of a pen is often made with plastic materials, which are, at best, difficult to recycle, and at worst, not recyclable at all. Inks used in most pens are often made up of chemicals which are toxic to the environment. Interlocking springs and clicking mechanisms ensure it's a tricky item to pick apart.
Some eco-friendly pens are made with cardboard shafts, which goes some way to reducing the plastic content. In Australia, there's a recycling initiative, driven by Terracycle, where old pens are melted down into harder plastics for mainly external purposes such as street furniture and flooring.
Along with lightbulbs, razorblades are up there with the most dangerous of household items to attempt recycling at home. In recent decades, the inclusion of a lubricated strip adds to the confusion. The vast majority of safety razor blades are coated in a substance known as Polytetrafluoroethylene (let's just call it PTFE). You probably haven’t heard of PTFE, but you might know the brand Teflon which uses PTFE on all of it’s pots and pans. Insanely, this PTFE coating will have to be burned off in order to recycle the metal blades. You'd have to be the keenest recycler in the village to go this far.
Razorblades can, however, be collected in bulk and sent to (yep, you guessed it) Terracycle, who will separate the parts and recycle them - in an initiative driven by Gillette which allows all brands to be returned and recycled.
We've identified five key areas to address if problematic unrecyclable items, such as those listed above, need to adapt for the benefit of the natural environment.
- Outright ban:
Governments signal a ban of the specific product or, more realistically, the banning of specific toxic materials, effectively forcing redesign or stopping use of the product or materials. Perhaps the harshest but most direct route to negative impact reduction, but a compromise could be a phased/transition pathway to banning.
- Substantial redesign:
Industry improves the recyclability of the product through fundamental amendments to the current product. Consumer adoption and acceptance is key.
Industry/manufacturer reduces the quantity of the product generated, or minimise the variety of materials used.
Technology can be improved to treat/process the key materials and ensure recycling is achieved.
Collection systems could be introduced or modified to accept the product. The cost of recovery will need to be addressed, and ideally supported/absorbed by governments or larger sponsors/corporations.
There's no easy fix when it comes to recycling otherwise we'd already be seeing the alternatives. What we can do is continue to ask questions that will create space for solutions to arise. What's truly necessary in a product? Can we reduce the number of materials and parts? How can we drastically reduce the negative environmental impact of any given product? What uses of technology can be of benefit? Conversely, what elements of technology can be stripped away to reduce unnecessary complications?
So many questions, and with the present health of Planet Earth so delicately balanced, there's never been a more critical time for answers.