Made with renewable resources – it’s not always as good as it sounds
“Made with Renewable Resources” is showing up on all sorts of green products these days. Renewable resources implies that the material is replaced by natural processes at a rate comparable or faster than its rate of consumption by humans. Bamboo is often touted as a renewable resource because of its fast rate of growth. The downside is that it grows in China, and must travel around the world to get here.
We generally pay more attention to how a product is sourced, rather than its ultimate disposition. Because I like sheep, let’s take wool as an example. The sheep takes nutrients from the soil by eating grass (or hay in winter) and stores some of these nutrients in the form of wool. We take the wool, use it, and quite likely eventually landfill it, nutrients and all. The sheep’s pasture or hay field is relatively nutrients deficient, and eventually will require fertilizer. If it is a synthetic fertilizer, it is made from natural gas, a non-renewable resource.
The same situation applies to many other farmed products including corn and cotton, which are notorious for their intense need for fertilizer and pesticide.
Herein lies the first question: if a renewable (wool, corn, cotton) resource leaves the soil in such a condition that it needs to be replaced by a non-renewable resource (fertilizer), is that renewable resource (wool, corn, cotton) truly renewable?
To a certain extent, it might depend on what the material is made of. Many nutrients exist in a finite supply supply on this earth. Perhaps we should consider these nutrients (phosphorus as a prime example) and micronutrients non-renewable resources.
Herein lies the second question: if a renewable resource is nutrient rich, should we really consider it renewable if we cannot eventually return the nutrients to the soil?
I’m betting most products made from renewable resources are not composted, either because of lack of composting infrastructure or because the original renewable resource material is somehow altered or bound to a another substance such that is is not compostable.
Herein lies the third and final question: if a product is made in such a way that its nutrients cannot be returned to the soil, does it really matter that the product is “Made with Renewable Resources”?
This is where product design really matters, specifically cradle to cradle design. To avoid nutrient loss, let’s design products such that they can be composted or truly recycled. This philosophy preserves all nutrients, both “renewable” and “non-renewable”. After all, the distinction isn’t entirely clear – if we don’t adequately recycle the nutrients required for plant growth, eventually nothing is renewable.
This entry was posted on Saturday, October 30th, 2010 at 4:43 pm and is filed under General. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.