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September 2008
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USPS: environmental champion, in a very vague way.

By Karina | September 3, 2008

uspspriority.jpgI recently received a package via USPS priority mail, and after I ripped open the envelope to get to the goodies inside I noticed that there was a small logo and statement:

Cradle to Cradle Certification is awarded to products that pursue an innovative vision of ecologically-intelligent design that eliminates the concept of waste. This USPS packaging has been certified for it’s material content, recyclablity, and manufacturing characteristics. Please recycle.

I didn’t realize that last year the USPS has teamed with the product and process design firm MBDC to achieve MBDCs Cradle to Cradle Silver certification! This is a very long and robust process designed to ensure that the components include in, and the end-of-life of your product, are environmentally sustainable. There’s plenty of detail about the process here, both in generalities and with respect to the USPS.

The concept of Cradle to Cradle design is outlined at some length in the book by the same name, written by the founding partners of MBDC. Now, I will admit here that I haven’t reviewed this book on Tiny Choices (yet?) – partly because the tone of my review would be along these lines, written by the author of Fashion-Incubator, an amazing resource of a blog subtitled “lessons from the sustainable factory floor.” But to summarize: Cradle to cradle means that every component of a product can be taken apart and outside of this product, and reused as if it were a raw material again. Cradle to cradle maintains that recycling should be called down-cycling, and that it is inherently a wasteful process. There’s a little more information at the wiki page, if you don’t want to read the book.

To put it simply: Cradle to cradle does NOT support Individual Tiny Choices. It calls for a system-wide change, and while I agree that eliminating waste and being more efficient with our resources are Very Good Things, it can be discouraging to the individual to be told that Hey: your recycling efforts don’t really matter. You’re just DOWNCYCLING. What’s the point, you know? Cradle to cradle tells the individual that there is nothing you can do – and places the entirety of the burden for sustainability on the manufacturer.

Anyway, regardless of how I feel about cradle to cradle, this is the part that I find extra boggling: USPS has this little logo on their priority mail envelopes, saying please recycle. But no where on the envelope does it say HOW to recycle! I went to their press release and found some information buried at the bottom – but it’s a dead link. FYI, you can send Tyvek envelopes to Dupont and THEY will recycle them. Information is here.

But USPS, it would be a lot simpler if you told us how to do this straight out. Or even more innovative: print the address and shipping information on the inside of the priority mail envelope so we can just flip them inside out, slap a stamp on them, and send them off to their happy second life as more Tyvek. If you’re going to be so careful about making sure your products can be recycled, you should make it a lot easier to actually recycle them.

What do you think? should I tell you what I REALLY think about Cradle to Cradle, or is this entirely enough of that?

[Image from flickr user kelsey * via creative commons license.]

Topics: Waste | 10 Comments »

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Comment by Brandy
2008-09-03 09:16:26

Actually, yes, I really would like to know what you think about Cradle to Cradle. The major point of the review you linked seemed to be, “Hey: your recycling efforts don’t really matter, if you’re not a vegetarian.” And that sounds like the same sort of thing the book is doing (trivializing small decisions).

Disclaimer: I haven’t read the book yet.

Comment by Karina
2008-09-03 11:40:55

I did say the tone, but I should have said not specifically the content. But the tone is very similar to the way I feel about cradle to cradle.

I’ll have to get it from the library again so I can do a through job with the review! I’ve put it off because I’m kind of a grouch about the whole book.

Comment by Clare
2008-09-03 18:26:29

I have read the book, and enjoyed it. However, as someone who’s neither a business person nor an engineer, it did make me feel pretty helpless.

I don’t think that makes the concept of Cradle to Cradle a bad thing, though–in fact, I believe pretty strongly that it’s necessary. It just shouldn’t be something marketed to laypeople, at least not without losing the whole “recycling is completely useless” attitude. It’s more accurate to say “recycling is not enough.”

Comment by Aurora
2008-09-03 21:41:42

While I don’t necessarily think Cradle to Cradle certification is something that the average postal consumer understands, I do certain applaud the USPS for taking a more life cycle look at their product and seeking third-party verification of claims and achievement.

While many of their products are cardboard (and thus, easier to certify than, say, an electronic component), many aren’t. I think the really interesting part of this whole certification is that they didn’t just stop with their simpler packaging, they took the same ideas all the way to down to even their inks, tape, and adhesive!

Also, who can argue with the upside that certification gained them — a retooled product that reduces its carbon emissions by 15,000 metric tons annually.


Comment by Karina
2008-09-04 11:45:16

thank you for pointing out the gorilla in the corner of the room: no matter how I feel about the book Cradle to Cradle, it really IS a net positive voice in the sustainability conversation.

Comment by Beth Terry
2008-09-04 04:35:10

As far as “send[ing] them off to their happy second life as more Tyvek,” I think their happy life continues as something other than Tyvek, as I recall. Plastic recycling is always downcycling. Let me look it up, and I’ll get right back to you.

Back again. Here it is, from Dupont’s site (the same page you linked to, btw):

“DuPont manages a nationwide recycling program that collects used Tyvek® envelopes – even printed Tyvek® envelopes – and recycles them into other useful materials that provide sound alternatives to the use of wood, including park benches, playground equipment, etc. ”

So SuPont is still using virgin plastic to create new Tyvek envelopes. I know that’s not the point of your post. But I’m Fake Plastic Fish, and I just had to say…


Comment by Karina
2008-09-04 11:44:30

Thank you for looking that up! one of the cornerstones of the cradle to cradle concept is that there is no downcycling, if I remember it correctly – I wonder why it’s ok to downcycle plastics if your certified?

Comment by Jenn
2008-09-05 16:10:48

Wow, thanks Beth– this is great information. I think we all don’t talk enough about plastic “recycling” actually being downcycling… it paints a much bleaker, but truer, picture of what’s happening.

Comment by Susan
2008-09-05 01:50:06

I really enjoyed Cradle to Cradle. I like the concept that the burden is placed more heavily on manufacturers to produce sustainably. I didn’t feel hopeless or helpless after reading the book, because I think businesses should have to be more thoughtful about what happens to their product at the end of its current incarnation. I’ve seen a video of one of the founders giving a presentation with lots of slides of factories and mixed use buildings that are just breathtaking in their incorporation of all things sustainable — crops grown on rooftops, rain collected for greywater use, etc. all on a huge scale. It disappoints me that something like Tyvek is certified as cradle to cradle when clearly that’s stretching the concept quite a bit.

Comment by Jenn
2008-09-18 01:38:53

I really like the idea of Cradle to Cradle. In theory. One of the problems (and maybe it is answered in the book and I am not there yet) is the idea of pieces being reused instead of using natural items- for example, I think it is great that polar fleece can be made new again, but I would rather have wool. Now, for making computers and cars and the like I think it is great! Wool can be reworked (they used to have mills that did this, there are only a few left now though, and mostly in europe) and later composted- in home composting too, not somewhere that requires special heat or anything.

But yea…not sure how tyvek is cradle to cradle. It can be recycled, and that is great (I do use it for shipping things- it’s lighter weight is nice, and I try and get people to recycle it with instructions on my site), but it is not the same “reuse” as taking apart is.
(Though I do want to weave a rug from strips of the envelopes someday! All in good time I suppose).


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