For the very first post on my site, I’m going to talk about bins.
It can only get better from here.
The whole point of a circular economy is that we’d capture all materials. We normally do that with bins and I think the design of bins, and how we think about them, is really important.
Now for most of our history we’ve been able to throw away most of our materials near where we were. Throw a stick on the ground and, in time, something will come along and reprocess it.
I’m not saying all was a beautifully composted utopia. It depends on the soil (or lack of) and creatures around you. But in the 20th century we developed a whole new class of materials that were great because they wouldn’t break down.
Great for us, until we want rid of them. Not great, as they’re of little use, to the ecosystems we live in.
Nature, including our own habits, has struggled to evolve an answer to these new substances.
The materials I mentioned above are classed at “Technical” materials, or “Technical Nutrients” in Circular thinking. This means they are synthetic or mined by us and generally no use to nature. Instead they belong to the “Technosphere”. So they should be seperated and used again.
If we look at Bins through the concept of a circular economy, most of our current bins are rubbish. Until recent recycle bins your general bin had one aim – get whatever we don’t need anymore ‘away’. Quick as possible.
But as the quote goes “There is no such place as Away”
The names we use reinforce this.
Chucking stuff away is when we are at our most lazy. Compared to the effort we put into getting stuff out the ground, it’s geeks vs cavemen. We are built to do this but it’s not enough any more.
Recently I entered another competition on GrabCAD. The charity The Plastic Bank is looking to harvest plastic waste in developing countries to reuse in 3D printers. They wanted to create an item with the most possible value from 52g of PET plastic (the amount in a large drinks bottle). This is difficult as virgin plastic is still dirt cheap but there’s some great entries on there.
Had a few ideas but settled on trying to make gathering and organising that plastic waste easier. I figured it might be one of the first things you’d make. I designed 3 (ooops) parts that each weighed 52g – litter picking tongs; a central holder and a bracket to hold a carrier bag. I called it Sort@Source
This gives you 3 separate bags to use as you’re walking around, which I thought would let you start to seperate early on. The bag brackets would clip on and off the holder so hopefully you could swap them in and out and organise them back at base.
They gave me a top ten place for this: I won a flag! (no sign of the flag yet), but most interestingly the comment was “Waste-pickers may prefer to sort using their hands which makes this less functional than some of the other entries.”
It’s a good point. If you’ve got a lot of litter on a flat surface you can quickly scan it and organise it, although you have to get hands on. I intend to prototype it and try for myself but as a rule seperating materials as early as possible helps everything downstream.
So where does that leave bins? To me there’s no answer other than we need bins that separate materials as early as possible. Modern materials and products are complex, so surely our bins need to be complex too?
? degrees of seperation
But how deep would we go? A typical decent recycling setup in the UK in 2014 is like this: Paper & Card, common plastic, Metal, Glass, Food and Garden Waste. That covers a lot. But knowing the fine grading of materials that are manufactured it’s nowhere near precise enough for true recycling (where what comes out is as good as what went in)
We could follow the Waste Hierachy – building a bin that looks like the graphic many of us have seen:
Maybe this could work for all products, where’s the incentive to pick the top over the bottom though?
For recycling plants getting a consistent grade of material is perhaps the number one aim. So taking a common and fairly homogenous plastic like PET (#1, your bottle of water) it can still get complex. There are many types available and many produced:
This doesn’t even include PET that is biodegradable or compostable – a whole extra category that’s great if kept seperate but not great when mixed together with oil-based PET, which it actually degrades.
The individual grades manufactured of just one material like plastic run into the tens of thousands. The landfill bin we are used to reduces everything to one mixed up sludge. We need to find a new way and, though it feels unnatural, we need to find a circular way to get more use from the amazing materials we keep inventing.
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