What’s Really in the Products We Use Every Day?
What are the products of everyday use really made of — and what threats to the environment do they pose?
July 19, 2010
Imagine what you would come upon today at a typical landfill: old furniture, upholstery, carpets, televisions, clothing, shoes, telephones, computers, complex products and plastic packaging, as well as organic materials like diapers, paper, wood and food wastes.
Most of these products were made from valuable materials that required effort and expense to extract and make, billions of dollars' worth of material assets. The biodegradable materials such as food matter and paper actually have value too — they could decompose and return biological nutrients to the soil. Unfortunately, all of these things are heaped in a landfill, where their value is wasted.
They are the ultimate products of an industrial system that is designed on a linear, one-way cradle-to-grave model. Resources are extracted, shaped into products, sold and eventually disposed of in a "grave" of some kind, usually a landfill or incinerator. You are probably familiar with the end of this process because you, the customer, are responsible for dealing with its detritus.
Think about it: You may be referred to as a consumer, but there is very little that you actually consume — some food, some liquids. Everything else is designed for you to throw away when you are finished with it. But where is "away"? Of course, "away" does not really exist. "Away" has gone away.
Cradle-to-grave designs dominate modern manufacturing. According to some accounts, more than 90% of materials extracted to make durable goods in the United States become waste almost immediately. Sometimes the product itself scarcely lasts longer. It is often cheaper to buy a new version of even the most expensive appliance than to track down someone to repair the original item.
In fact, many products are designed with "built-in obsolescence," to last only for a certain period of time, to allow — to encourage — the customer to get rid of the thing and buy a new model. Also, what most people see in their garbage cans is just the tip of a material iceberg. The product itself contains on average only 5% of the raw materials involved in the process of making and delivering it.
The design intention behind the current industrial infrastructure is to make an attractive product that is affordable, meets regulations, performs well enough and lasts long enough to meet market expectations. Such a product fulfills the manufacturer's desires and some of the customers' expectations as well.
But from our perspective, products that are not designed particularly for human and ecological health are unintelligent and inelegant — what we call crude products.
For example, the average mass-produced piece of polyester clothing and a typical water bottle both contain antimony, a toxic heavy metal known to cause cancer under certain circumstances. Let's put aside for the moment the issues of whether this substance represents a specific danger to the user.
The question we would pose as designers is: Why is it there? Is it necessary? Actually, it is not necessary: Antimony is a current catalyst in the polymerization process and is not necessary for polyester production. What happens when this discarded product is "recycled" (that is, downcycled) and mixed with other materials?
What about when it is burned along with other trash as cooking fuel, a common practice in developing countries? Incineration makes the antimony bioavailable — that is, available for breathing. If polyester might be used for fuel, we need polyesters that can be safely burned.
That polyester shirt and that water bottle are both examples of what we call products plus: As a buyer you got the item or service you wanted, plus additives that you didn't ask for and didn't know were included and that may be harmful to you and your loved ones.
(Maybe shirt labels should read: "Product contains toxic dyes and catalysts. Don't work up a sweat or they will leach onto your skin.") Moreover, these extra ingredients may not be necessary to the product itself.
Since 1987, we have been studying various products from major manufacturers, ordinary things such as a computer mouse, an electric shaver, a popular handheld video game, a hair dryer and a portable CD player. We found that during use they all off-gassed teratogenic and/or carcinogenic compounds — substances known to have a role in causing birth defects and cancer.
An electric hand mixer emitted chemical gases that got trapped in the oily butter molecules of the cake batter and ended up in the cake. So be careful — you might unintentionally be eating your appliances.
Why does this happen? The reason is that high-tech products are usually composed of low-quality materials — that is, cheap plastics and dyes — globally sourced from the lowest-cost provider, which may be halfway around the world. This means that even substances banned for use in the United States and Europe can reach this country via products and parts made elsewhere.
So, for example, the carcinogen benzene, banned for use as a solvent in American factories, can be shipped here in rubber parts that were manufactured in developing countries that have not banned it. They can be assembled into, say, your treadmill, which will then emit the "banned" substance as you exercise.
The problem intensifies when parts from numerous countries are assembled into one product, as is often the case with high-tech items such as electronic equipment and appliances.
Manufacturers do not necessarily keep track of — nor are they required to know — what exactly is in all of these parts. An exercise machine assembled in the United States may contain rubber belts from Malaysia, chemicals from Korea, motors from China, adhesives from Taiwan and wood from Brazil.
Editor’s note: This feature is excerpted from “Cradle to Cradle” by William McDonough and Michael Braungart, published by North Point Press. Copyright 2002 by William McDonough and Michael Braungart. Reprinted with permission of the authors.
Manufacturers do not necessarily keep track of — nor are they required to know — what exactly is in all of the parts of production.
Finished products themselves contain on average only 5% of the raw materials involved in the process of making and delivering it.
You may be referred to as a consumer, but there is very little that you actually consume — some food, some liquids. Everything else is designed for you to throw away when you are finished with it.
High-tech products are usually composed of low-quality materials that are globally sourced from the lowest-cost provider.