Why are people so fond of whodunits? Here’s a guess: We absolutely crave the moment when we find out the guy slinking around in the trench coat didn’t do it (and you knew it — come on, he was way too obvious). No, it turns out the culprit was actually that sweet old lady from next door who made all the fruit pies. But the thing is — you weren’t really surprised, right? When you think about it, clearly something was up with her, that’s for sure.
Sometimes the truth is right there under our noses, but we miss it. We get distracted by the shiny object, something that grabs all the attention. Which brings us to a point worth making about the way we sometimes approach sustainability. The shiny object, in this particular case, is recycling.
Now remember — we suspected the guy in the trench coat because he was acting suspiciously. There were excellent reasons to think he was the guy. In fact, if you’re a fan of mysteries you know sometimes he is the guy. Likewise — placing a premium on recycling as part of a holistic approach to sustainability does make a whole lot of sense. Recycling is a very good thing. But an emphasis on recycling and recyclability can also have the unintended effect of drawing attention away from something just as important — and that something, is product longevity.
WHY DIDN’T I THINK OF THAT?
So what do we mean? Well, here’s one way to look at it: We all tend to be pretty hard-wired these days to remember to put stuff in the blue can. And we dutifully take it out to the curb every week on trash day. We’re very careful not to put soda cans in the trash — they go in the blue can. And we do this because we want to be good environmental citizens.
Now, while we’re doing all that, here’s an obvious fact we might miss: What if we didn’t put so much stuff in the blue can? Not because we throw it in the trash instead, but because we just don’t throw it out at all. Generating less waste is a powerful way to have a positive impact on the environment. Look back at that last sentence. It seems so obvious, right? And yet this simple fact can sometimes get lost in a long list of sustainability practices.
For example, let’s talk for a minute about floor coverings. Recycled content, take-back programs, cradle-to-cradle certifications — all of these are important. But when we discuss a take-back program, or the percentage of recycled content in a particular product, one thought is usually driving the conversation: “So what’s the plan going to be when we have to get rid of this carpet?” That’s an important question. But if you look at it from a corporate/business-to-business perspective — where long-range planning is always a huge part of the equation — there’s another good question worth asking: What if we install something with the durability to outlast another product so that we only have to replace it twice over the next 20 years, let’s say, rather than replace it three times?
In this scenario, waste over a 20-year period is reduced by a third. Total cost of ownership goes down. From a green perspective, you have one less instance where old carpet is hauled out, lowering fossil fuel use and saving the energy that would have been expended to run the equipment that does the actual recycling. Plus, an additional point, often overlooked: When you install new flooring, there’s also floor prep. Old adhesives might need to be removed. Which could require the use of chemical solvents, or grinding. Our scenario gives VoCs and particulates one less chance to wind up in your HVAC system.
The bottom line is simple: Product longevity has the potential to shoulder significant weight in a holistic sustainability program. Like any element in a well-thought-out plan, there are of course, pros and cons — there is no be-all and-end-all. But the next time someone starts talking about take-back programs, remember to ask yourself: Is it the trench coat guy or is it the pie lady?