New benefits in old products

Research and innovation

By Stephen Dale

Writer, Freelance

Jonathan Linton
Photo: Peter Thornton
There are multiple environmental and economic advantages to reclaiming goods that we normally send to the landfill. So why does reuse remain such a tough sell?

It’s an article of faith in today’s world that the three Rs—reduce, reuse and recycle—are essential to any plan for a more rational, less wasteful economy.

But have producers and consumers really gotten a handle on how to effectively deal with discarded products? Are we anywhere close to realizing the benefits that can come from treating trash as a valuable resource?

Jonathan Linton, until recently a professor at the University of Ottawa’s Telfer School of Management, believes there are still significant obstacles to overcome, most of them rooted in outmoded attitudes.

“The area that interests me is where technology and society interact,” he explains. “We can do things very nicely technically, but if those initiatives don’t mesh well with our social systems, we can end up with a lot of unanticipated problems.”

Take, for example, recycling laws in many jurisdictions, which Linton characterizes as “made by people with good intent” but nonetheless inadequately informed by key technical considerations. Although recycling aluminum cans, for example, “can work very well because aluminum melts well and it pours into shapes nicely,” it makes much less sense to promote the recycling of goods of “mixed materials, given that it is very, very expensive to separate the individual materials out.”

More importantly, says Linton, legislation mandating recycling for products like electronics overlooks the fact that “most of the value of those goods is sitting not in the underlying materials but in the shape of the product.” Recovery and reuse of such items is a much more effective way of diverting them from landfills and realizing secondary economic benefits.

Product recovery, in fact, is a major focus of Linton’s work and another area where he sees incomplete thinking impeding a potentially massive environmental payoff. The arguments for using reclaimed materials vary across borders and between sectors. The Netherlands, with its limited space, is desperate to reduce the land used for dumping. Sudan, a poor country, is more focused on the economic benefits.

Meanwhile, Linton’s earlier work with the Canadian electronics giant Nortel—which was experimenting with reprogramming old electronic boards returned by customers—convinced him of the business case for reuse. This approach reduces both cost and waste. By taking control of the refurbishing process, producers of merchandise ranging from inkjet cartridges to auto parts can also ensure their reputations are not damaged by third parties that may do a poor job of restoring cast-off components.

Using reclaimed materials remains a tough sell, however. Occasionally, the problem is consumer resistance. Mostly, though, the impediment is manufacturers’ belief that “if we sell products based on recovered products, we’ll be cannibalizing our own market. They’ve bought this idea that everything should be new and then become obsolete.”

Linton’s mission is to challenge this kind of restricted thinking. He aims to prod engineers and other specialists to consider the broader social context of their work and to envision ways in which combining their innovations with new processes and methods could “lead to advances that we weren’t expecting,” he says.