Recycle RedWe are making a serious mistake with our recycling.

You can come at this from various angles, but probably the simplest is terminology. We have become comfortable with ‘recycling’ as a term that legitimises our use of natural resources. Through it, we choose to believe that we are somehow replacing the natural resources that we are using. And that makes us feel better about our lives and our business.

Had we chosen to use the term ‘down-cycling’, however, we would be far more aware of the true state of affairs.

Certainly our recycling goes some way towards easing our use of raw materials, but the recycled material forfeits many of its qualities. While recycling glass uses less energy than manufacturing glass from sand, lime and soda, the recycled glass often turns up as aggregate in concrete rather than anything resembling its original use.

Cradle to cradle

Waste Hierarchy refers to ‘reduce, reuse and recycle’ as waste management strategies ranked according to their desirability. Often referred to as the 3R hierarchy, a fourth 'R' – re-think – is now being used to challenge its effectiveness. A genuinely effective system of waste management may require an entirely new approach.

At least a part of this may lie with ‘cradle-to-cradle’ recycling.

Proposed in 2003, the Cradle-to-Cradle Framework takes the operating system of the natural world as a model for the design of products of all kinds – including those found in pro audio and lighting. The polemic presented by William McDonough & Michael Braungart (with Paul Anastas and Julie Zimmerman) suggested that ‘human systems designed to operate by the same rules that govern the natural world can approach the effectiveness of the earth’s diverse living systems, in which there is no waste at all’.

McDonough and Braungart’s book, Cradle to Cradle/Remaking The Way We Make Things, is a manifesto for the transformation of human industry through ecologically intelligent design. ‘The design of products and manufacturing systems growing out of the Industrial Revolution reflected the spirit of the day, and yielded a host of unintended yet tragic consequences’, it argues.

In addition to describing design principles to help make industry both prosperous and sustainable, the book is printed on a synthetic ‘paper’ designed to look and feel like top-quality paper. And it can be easily recycled. This ‘treeless’ approach heralds a time when resources can be used, recycled and used again without losing quality – cradle to cradle.

Early into bed

An early adoptor of the cradle to cradle philosophy was American office furniture and services company Herman Miller. Among other innovations, Herman Miller is credited with the invention of the office cubicle, which was originally known as the Action Office. Its roots reach all the way back to 1946 and run through the mid-1960s – when it shifted its focus from domestic furniture to the business world. Officially the best-selling office chair in history, its Aeron has sold millions since it was introduced in 1994, and has a place in the permanent collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art. It’s not uncommon in recording studios, either. Look it up, you may recognise it.

Enter the Mirra chair in 2003, described as ‘a new reference point for performance, aesthetics, sustainable design, and value’. Mirra is a ‘green chair’, made of 42 per cent recycled materials. It has no PVC in its construction and is 96 per cent recyclable – cradle to cradle recyclable. Can this be said of anything we use?

Herman Miller’s green agenda extends to other areas of its operation too. It uses a database to track every chemical in each product it uses, and it helped fund the set-up of the United States Green Building Council. And when it needed a factory incorporating green design principles, it turned to architect William McDonough, who designed the Greenhouse – a pilot for the development of its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification process. You can expect LEED requirements to have a growing influence in systems integrators in the near future.

If this all makes upro audio look casual about picking up the green gauntlet, it’s because, as an industry, we are. True, we are increasingly seeing green office and manufacturing facilities appear, as well as responsible choices and use of materials, but we have a very long way to go.

Finally we have amplifiers that are lighter, cooler and more efficient (power factor correction is old science). It’s late, but it’s a start – and those companies that championed their development have been appropriately rewarded.

So the challenge is here. Who will lead and who will follow?

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