Free big idea: a product sustainability registry

 I’ve always been fascinated/horrified by the economics and consumer culture of “disposable” products. And pretty much everything is disposable anymore. First of all, we expect to be able to buy anything we need cheap, which drives down quality. That shortens the lifespan of the product, so it will break sooner. The cost to repair a cheap product is typically more than the cost of the product itself. Hence, pitch it, buy a new one. Repeat ad infinitum. 

So you get a continuous demand for raw materials, which is good for business but bad for the planet, and a shitload of broken junk in the landfill. The part that has always gotten me, though, is that just because the stuff is junk doesn’t mean it doesn’t hold value. Follow me here: the process whereby billions of products are sold and ultimately disposed of is essentially a dispersal of many raw materials from the places where they were found/mined/extracted to where they end up, in giant landfills (for the purposes of this article assume I’m talking about the sitch in the U.S. of A. only).

Thar’s gold in that thar trash. Literally.

But there’s a big problem. It’s the raw material diaspora. Say I’m interested in rare earth minerals, which have been in the news lately because of China’s chokehold on the world’s supply. We mined rare earth minerals here in the U.S. until it got cheaper to import them from China. Plus, hey, if China has the mines, China has the ecological fallout from those mines, not us. But, oops, those rare earth minerals sure are handy in computerized weapons used in our national defense. What if China did decide to embargo the U.S., our high tech industry and our military?

Well, just based on the electronics I’ve disposed of in my lifetime, I’ve got to believe there are tons of rare earth minerals leaching into the groundwater in landfills across this country. But there’s just little tiny bits of it scattered here and there. Finding it would cost a fortune and much of that cost would be spent on energy. That’s-a no good.

BUT WHAT IF, he said, finally, finally getting to the point, WHAT IF DISCARDED PRODUCTS CONTAINING VALUABLE/RECYCLABLE RAW MATERIALS WEREN’T SENT TO THE LANDFILL? WHAT IF THEY WERE CONSOLIDATED ALONG A HIGHLY EFFICIENT PUBLIC COLLECTION NETWORK ENABLED AND PUBLICIZED BY…

The Sustainability Registry

The Sustainability Registry would be funded by fees paid by companies registering products. When a product is registered, it means that owners of that product can easily learn how to sustainably retire it when it’s time has come.

Say I’ve got these fancy earphones and my cat Yeti chews through the cord. They’re useless to me now. Since they’re electronics and I’m an eco-conscious, patriotic  consumer, I check and sure enough they have an SR tag. I shoot the tag with my phone, or search the number on the tag on the SR site. Here’s what I get:

Sohibo Slammin’ SupaBuds
This product contains toxic substances that should be kept out of landfills.
This product contains materials, including rare earth minerals, that can be recycled and reused.

This product may be disposed of for sustainable recycling at:
•Fancy Health Foods, 1500 Main St. (map), NW corner near loading dock. Electronics only please!
•Manny’s Bikes, 200 E. 3rd, near dumpster.
•City Resource Collection Day, Saturday, 2/16/2011, 7am—5pm, Jenkins Municipal Center., east parking lot

See, once the network is launched, recycled material consolidation businesses will spring up. These businesses will specialize in collecting and concentrating for resale the raw materials out of disposed products. I think this can work, because much of the work and energy spent re-concentrating the raw materials will be done for the consolidator by the consumer/disposer. And that job will become easier, because as the network of do-gooders gets built out, people along the network will help “forward” material to reconcentrate it. And that will happen more and more efficiently thanks to information disseminated by the Sustainability Registry.

OK, say I am a consolidator of rare earth minerals. I will probably also “harvest” other materials frequently found in products containing r.e.m., too. SR will help me find sites in my local area that will allow me to place  collection containers there. From those sites I collect the “trash,” which has been pre-sorted for me so as to contain a high concentration of stuff I can extract and sell.

The SR will also help consumer/disposers get rid of their stuff more and more efficiently, too.

I admit, I can’t swear for certain that the straight up and down market economics of this consolidation/reconcentration/recycle process will “work.” A lot depends on whether the process can be made to consume minimal resources and leave minimal environmental impact. If it could approach breaking even on those terms, then I would think reducing pressure on landfills and recapturing our country’s stockpile of strategic materials could tip the balance in its favor.

Don’t laugh—this is a movement that could have lots of civic support. And the the more civic support it gets, the better it works.

Go for it.