On Recycling...and Reuse

    It is a well-known historical fact that when the Spanish Conquistadors took over the regions of Mexico and Peru, they committed grievous errors of judgment.  Referring to the Aztec and Inca as uncivilized pagans--an error given that planetary and stellar cycles were calculated with a much greater degree of precision--they also proceeded to melt majestic pieces indigenous artistry exclusively for their gold content.  The mistake consisted in viewing ornate pieces only for the material they had been built with, and disregarding the form it held.  This grievous error is somewhat ironic if you consider that Aristotle, in his study of nature, made such a distinction between matter and form.  

    It seems that today, as the Spanish Conquistadors, we routinely commit this error as well.  Rather than considering the form of the object we are recycling, we tend to consider only the material in which it is recycled.  Thus tires are only seen as rubber, nails are only seen as iron, cables are only seen as copper, and cups are only seen as glass; the form which they currently hold is dismissed (in this case, relatively simple shapes and forms).    This might appear to be more than 'reasonable'--the price of copper is rising after all, so why not sell it on the world market (to China principally).  However,  there are two other mistakes involved in our contemporary perspective that throw light into this 'obvious conclusion'.

    The first of these is that, with industrial processes, not only has energy gone to create unique products given their unique structures and shapes, but we might also say that the material itself also consists of a type of form (akin to the shape of Aztec gold pieces).  In other words, just as we create a chair from wood, thereby giving a unique form and shape to the wood which it did not 'naturally' hold (and thereby proving this natural material an instrumental use and economic value), in our modern 'postindustrial' world we doubly give form to a product (an automobile tire)  by the fact that we have created the material that did not naturally exist in the first place  (human-made synthetic rubber rather than naturally found wood).   The craftsman's shape has been embedded not only on the form and shape of the final product (a tire's circular profile with gridded track) but to the material as well (synthetic rubber, amongst others, including steel). 

    The second error in the traditional perspective is that economic thinking tends to overwhelm scientific thinking.  That is to say, our actions become dependent on the cost of acquisition rather than the complexity that went into the creation of the material.  We so easily throw away a plastic cup simply because of the very small price we paid to obtain said item, but little do we consider the tremendously complex history that went into the creation of that plastic cup.  All plastic comes from petroleum, and it took hundreds of years before we could create the science and the tools necessary for the chemical manipulation of this material, much of which we owe to German scientists and the development of organic chemistry.  (Anyone who has taken organic chemistry knows how incredibly difficult the subject matter is.) 

    In fact, apparently simple products can have a tremendously rich and complex histories--much more so than is commonly presumed.  Typically, we tend to equate structurally complex material with the amount of effort that went into it, thereby giving much more value to electronics and computers ('complex') than to plastic cups ('simple').  We presume that while it took 'geniuses' to create a computer, it took 'ordinary workmen' to make plastic cups.  Our ignorance of its rich history blinds us to its actual historical value.  We might also suggest that from the example that we also tend to associate 'weight' with value; the more an item weights, then 'clearly' the more it should be valued.  A plastic cup weights less than a glass cup, so we therefore tend to presume it holds less value, easily demonstrated by the fact that we more easily throw away a plastic cup than a glass cup.  (All of these phenomenon suggest that there might be sociobiological phenomena at work--indications of how our own evolution have influenced the manner in which we perceive things.)

    It is clear that what might be termed the 'ecological laws of thermodynamics' at work which are not necessarily being considered by the recycling industry.  The 'evolution' of technology and its products implies that many products are of a higher 'energetic order' than is naturally presumed, akin to the complex pyramid of animals.  To refresh your memory, the application of thermodynamics to the biological world led to the realization that animals in the upper hierarchy (mammals as cows) typically have energetic requirements that are orders of magnitude higher than those in lower order (insects as ants).  This is why, for example, it is more 'efficient' to be a vegetarian, than a carnivore; less energy gets expended to produce the same amount of calories.   Similarly, one could argue that certain technological products are of a higher 'ecological order' than others leading to recycling practices different from those we tend to practice nowdays.  It is to be noted, that 'higher order' in the technological realm need not necessarily be based on structural complexity, but rather 'material complexity' as well.  In this sense, an plastic cup ('ant') would be of a higher order than a wooden desk (cow)--contrary to our 'common sense'.

    What does this all mean?  That modern policy makers should give a more serious consideration to 'reuse' than to recycling. Otherwise, they might actually be loosing more money over the long run than they previously imagined.

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