Materials: Recycling

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Our existing economy runs largely on a throughput of materials rather than recycling. Throughput means extracting whatever is considered necessary from the earth and forests, using what we want, and discarding what is considered waste into the ecosystem (mainly the atmosphere and water systems). At present rates this can't last very long before resource depletion, degradation, and an overload of the natural cleansing systems set in. In the long run, a sustainable way of running our affairs needs to be found, and the sooner we do this, the less painful the future will be. What does sustainable mean in this context? In a simple way it means recycling our waste as an integral part of providing for our needs. Rather than doing it for a few limited materials, we need to aim to do it for everything. Every output should be a potential input for another process, as occurs in nature.

This requires much rethinking of the way that many of our goods are designed and manufactured. This is already happening in Germany, where the onus for recycling has been passed back to the originator of the waste. Every manufacturer now has to develop methods of recycling as part of the design process. If there is no known way of recycling a particular material or component, then there should be no further production until a way has been found. This measure would have the effect of weeding out products that are not ecologically sustainable.

Waste on the present scale is completely unprecedented. Past societies never generated the mountains of rubbish we produce every day. Nor did they plunder the earth’s resources to the same extent: they simply did not have the technological means to do so. Even today there are rural societies, such as in Ladakh, that effectively generate no waste whatsoever.

How can we begin to achieve a reduction in throughput and an increase in recycling within our homes? If we think of our home as a materials system, much like its energy system, products and materials bought become the inputs, and the materials and waste to be disposed of become the outputs. Both these inputs and outputs need to be reduced to a minimum. To help achieve this, we need to reuse and recycle as much as possible within our homes. We need also to recycle the unwanted materials (outputs) in as many ways as may be necessary. This program can be summarized below, in a way that introduces the main headings for this section:

REDUCE—particularly items bought (inputs)

REUSE—products inside our homes

RECYCLE—unwanted materials (outputs)


How can we best reduce the inputs that really matter? We need particularly to look at three elements: the overall bulk of goods and materials that we are consuming; the ways in which goods and materials can be acquired from recycled sources; and the need to ensure that the remaining goods and materials are chosen using ecological criteria.

Limiting New Inputs

There are many ways we can limit inputs in our homes. We can do it partly by limiting the space we use in the first place. This will have an impact on the amount of materials needed for decorating and furnishing (let alone extending). The section on INTERNAL SPACE suggests some ways in which we can make creative and efficient use of the space in our homes.

Another very important way in which we can reduce these inputs is to limit the wastage of building materials in any building work we carry out. Building materials wasted during construction account for about 20% of the total used. This wastage is cumulative at various stages of the building process. When specifying and ordering materials, inaccuracies commonly occur. Materials can also be spoiled during storage from traffic, poor stacking, or moisture. The use of the materials also causes wastage through damage and off-cutting at the installation stage.

Our society encourages us to buy far more than we need. We ought therefore to find ways of clarifying what our real needs are, and focus on meeting them rather than buying the many superfluous products that seem to demand our attention. In general, we need to limit our consumerist tendencies and also improve the environmental quality of the goods we purchase.

Apart from buying less, we can share more. Rather than finding this an annoyance, we could choose to do this with someone we like to interact with, thereby making the process more pleasurable. We can share DIY and garden tools such as shredders. Alternatively, we can rent tools or machinery, if a rental store is located nearby.

Using Recycled Materials or Appliances

Using recycled materials is another way we can reduce our throughput. At present only 1% of building materials is supplied from reclaimed materials.

This is a minute fraction of what it should be.

We can use recycled materials in one of two ways: either as secondhand or salvaged materials, or as materials made from a recycled source.

Salvaged or Reclaimed Materials or Products

Old materials that have stood the test of time are often far more attractive than their modern equivalents. Salvage yards of either architectural pieces or standard building materials are the places to seek out and visit if you are looking for these items. Some are very expensive, because of their relative scarcity. However, you may be able to find many other old materials for sale at very reasonable prices. It is often a matter of luck whether you find what you are looking for, but such places are well worth a visit because they are like museums of old building materials. Local demolition sites can also be a source of ready materials.

Recycled and reclaimed materials

Products from Recycled Materials

If you can't use a reclaimed material, then a product manufactured from recycled materials is the next best thing. Examples of these products are insulation made from recycled cellulose fiber from old newspaper, and underlayment made from old tires. It is always worth asking your local building supply merchant if there is a recycled alternative to a particular product.

Materials from Industrial By-Products

These materials are made from by-products such as pulverized fuel ash (PFA) from power stations, or slag from metal production. Pulverized fuel ash is made into lightweight aggregate, and slag is made into various products including slag wool, an insulation product similar to fiberglass. Minestone—waste from mining operations which can be used for hard core—is another example of a use for a material that would otherwise be wasted.

Ecological Criteria for New Inputs

The question of what makes an ecological material has been developed at some length in the CRITERIA FOR MATERIALS SELECTION section. In terms of recycling, the following criteria are of particular relevance here.

Renewable Materials

These are materials that are recycled by nature; if managed sustainably, they should be a priority choice. They are the products of living organisms, the most important being timber. Others are products from plants, such as rubber, cork, and cotton, and from animals, such as wool (see LIVING RESOURCES).

Durable Materials

Durability results in a reduced frequency of replacement and thus reduces the throughput of materials. Many materials can either be designed or manufactured to be durable. Examples are bricks, glazed tiles, iron railings, and even windows.


These are materials that are reusable as components, such as slates; biodegradable, such as wallpaper; or recyclable by melting down, such as metals. If we buy materials that can easily be recycled, we solve future problems when they become outputs.


How can we reduce the speed with which we use up materials in our homes? Essentially, we can either make things last longer through renovation, repair, and reusing items where possible; or we can recycle materials within our homes.

Renovation and Repair

In the past, items were continuously repaired and maintained until they became worn out. Now we have the concept of the disposable item, which always will look brand-new because it is continually being replaced.

We need to learn to look after our home and possessions with more care. We can do this in various ways, including learning how to use things properly and knowing when an appliance needs to be serviced. However, we need to be willing to repair rather than replace. This is true for almost any area of our home, whether it is touching up the paintwork or repairing a cupboard door. Sash window renovation provides perhaps the best example of all.

Sash Window Renovation

Many people have been persuaded by builders to replace their old sash windows for much uglier and often inferior standard plastic or timber ones. What is surprising about so many old sash windows is that the wood they are made from is often in very good condition. They may have a bit of rot in the bottom sill, but if the windows are taken out, stripped, repaired, and re-glazed with stepped double-glazing, you have a window that is often superior in performance (and certainly superior in appearance) to a modern plastic one. Renovating these windows is a real labor of love, one that includes careful painting and weather-stripping, but it is also very satisfying. If you find the prospect too daunting to undertake yourself, there are firms which do an excellent job.

Recycle What You Can within Your Home or Garden

There are a number of ways that we can recycle materials within our homes. The most important is by using natural processes. For instance, through composting, organic materials can be recycled into plants and vegetables; also air can be partly purified using indoor plants, and water can be treated outside in reedbeds.

Of course, all the other methods of recycling are relevant here, for instance, the recycling of basic materials such as timber, fabrics, or hard core and the recycling of component materials such as bricks, tiles, and slates. These can all also become recyclable outputs.


We live in a throw-away society. Nowhere is this better expressed than in the mountains of rubbish collected from our homes every week, most of which could be reused. This fact is well-known, and yet, as a society, we are doing very little to reorganize these collection systems. In addition, a very large amount of reusable building materials, including a great number of architectural antiques, are still being deposited as landfill. Each time 30 bricks are thrown away, the energy equivalent of a gallon of gasoline goes up in carbon dioxide. We also throw away hundreds of tons of old, but perfectly reusable, tropical hardwoods everyday.

What is even more extraordinary is that we often throw whole buildings away, with sometimes only the briefest of salvage operations to recover just the items that will “make a quick buck?’ We have to adjust our thinking to the idea of recycling everything in one way or another, and only throwing away as a last resort. The aim should be to minimize these rejected items and , eventually, to eliminate them altogether.

In reality there is no such thing as throwing something away. Away to where? What we mean is that we want it away from us. This only means that our waste is deposited either nearer someone else or into an increasingly sensitive ecosystem. What is more, it will often cycle back to us. Throw batteries in the garbage and their mercury, lead, and cadmium will, sooner or later, show up in your water.


When undertaking demolition work, it is important to dismantle the construction carefully in order to conserve as many of the materials as possible. Whether this involves removing slates from a roof, taking brick work apart, or extracting timber studs from a partition, a small amount of extra care delivers a large increase in the quality of the reclaimed materials.

Different Ways of Recycling Outputs

The following are ways of recycling:

• Direct recycling of basic materials such as earth or timber.

• Recycling of reclaimed building components such as bricks, tiles, and slates.

• Recycling by the melting down of such materials as glass, metal, and some plastics (see next section).

• Recycling by repair or renovation.

• Recycling by downgrading—for instance, waste bricks, concrete, and stone become hardcore.

• Recycling through biodegradation or composting of organic matter.

Common to all recycling is the need to categorize and keep separate all the different items. Mixing materials nearly always leads to a downgrading. In the case of your own home, if you are having a builder do some work, discuss with him how different materials can be reclaimed and kept separate, rather than throwing everything together into a dumpster to be carted away.

Passing on Your Own Unwanted Building Materials

There are various possible ways to find a home for your unwanted building materials. You can stack them up neatly and advertise in the local paper or let your neighbors know. Alternatively, you can call up a local salvage company or building-supply merchant: there are some traders who make it their business to know exactly who wants what. The range of materials and components that can be sold locally is much wider than is generally imagined. There is usually someone requiring hardcore, secondhand timber, or off-cuts. For anything more obscure, like an old chimneypot or pieces of molding, you should look for a specialist in the field. Your Yellow Pages is a good place to start your search.

Recycling Materials to Be Melted Down

There are three basic types of material that are recycled by melting down: scrap metal, glass, and plastics.

• Scrap metal. This is probably the best developed of all recycling collection systems, probably because it has been going on for so long. There are undoubtedly huge improvements that could be made to the efficiency of the system, but so long as the different metals to be recycled are separated, you can even make some money by selling recycled metals.

• Glass. In Britain, as well as many of the United States, bottle redemption and recycling centers are now ubiquitous. All that has to happen is for it to be made compulsory to use them. Those who manage them do not encourage their use for broken panes of glass—sometimes there is even a notice to this effect. Small quantities can be broken up (with care!); larger quantities should be referred to your nearest glass recycling agent.

• Plastics. These products present an increasing problem, since the plastics industry is only under voluntary agreement to organize recycling schemes. Most plastic recycling centers become over loaded very quickly and all manner of plastics get mixed together. In the US, state and local governments need to act together to enforce a proper system of plastics recycling that deals with the full range. For our own part, we need to clean and separate our plastics into different categories. You will need to find out which

plastics are recycled locally.

Dealing with Toxic Wastes

Advice on what to do with toxic substances such as pesticides, solvents, lead paint scrapings, asbestos, or old batteries is dealt with in TOXINS and POLLUTION. As a first step, contact the person responsible in your local government.


+ Reduce the quantities of materials that you actually use as much as possible. When undertaking any sort of renovation work, calculate carefully the quantities required so that there is as little waste as possible.

+ Obtain and use recycled materials and reclaimed components wherever possible.

+ Reuse, repair, and recycle materials within your own home to reduce throughput. Ideally, this means working to improve and expand your own skills and becoming more self-sufficient.

+ Find ways of recycling all the materials and components that you don’t want. This means reducing the amount of “rubbish” that is actually “thrown away” (taken to the landfill) and finding outlets for all recyclable materials.

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