|Montréal, le 28 août 1999
|Inventing resource recovery
I decided to talk to individual inventors, and my research strategy led me to shops, factories, bungalows, and apartments in my hometown, Montreal. I met many mechanically inclined people, most of them mavericks who had worked in many different industries. My research design was validated as I documented numerous cases of inter-industry technology transfer.
My interviews showed me that inventors are compulsive problem-solvers. They see problems where the rest of us would be happy with the status quo. In their opinion, a machine can always be improved to do more with fewer resources. As a result of this mindset, they dislike waste. I began documenting ways that innovative individuals had helped reduce waste throughout their lives.
Many of these inventors were part of recycling networks, some of which had managed to escape the attention of tax collectors. I visited backyards and shops that looked like junkyards to me, but whose owners saw as full of potentially valuable resources.
I had recently become aware of resource recovery. By chance, I had stumbled across urban theorist Jane Jacobs' illuminating discussion of
As my interest in resource recovery grew, I discovered the currently popular way of looking at the economic world and resource recovery known as
These researchers argue that left to itself, an industrial economy always turns into an unsustainable
Proponents of industrial ecology tend to think that an industrial economy, left to itself, turns into an unsustainable
Resource History 101
Most industrial ecologists doubt that the free market can achieve such linkages on its own. For example, a pioneer in the field, Robert Ayres, concludes that the only efficient way to turn the waste of one industry into the input of another is through
Yet the history of resource recovery undermines the assumptions of industrial ecologists. While researching corporate innovation at the Jerome and Dorothy Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation (a privately endowed institution affiliated with the Smithsonian), I did a computer search of what the museum had on
Most authors who wrote on waste in the last century and at the beginning of this one understood the importance of industrial loops, the supposed bedrock of modern industrial ecology. In his classic On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures, the polymath Charles Babbage wrote that cheap production of any article was possible partly because of the care taken to prevent raw material waste, and
Babbage described how horns from livestock were used by a multitude of other industries early in the 19th century. Some of the horns were made into combs and a substitute for lantern glass; others were carved into knife handles and the tops of whips. The processing provided fat for soapmakers, glue to stiffen clothes, and fertilizer for farmers – even toys for children. As Frederick Talbot wrote in the early 20th century, waste was
The economist Alfred Marshall's Principles of Economics, published in 1920, also discusses recycling and reuse. In his chapter on industrial location, Marshall wrote:
Why have things changed?
If resource recovery was so prevalent in the past, why do we get the impression that it is something that must be forced today? I think there are two reasons. For one, few academicians and bureaucrats have taken the time to study recycling networks in any depth. The other is the misconception, fostered by regulation, that waste is something dangerous rather than something potentially useful. As industrial ecologist Nicholas Gertler (1995) has written:
Regulations reflecting this mentality are holding back industrial ecology today. Writing in Scientific American in 1995, Robert Frosch noted that once a substance is identified as hazardous, it is subject to such regulatory strictures that it can rarely be reused. Frosch notes that the automotive industry, in protecting cars against corrosion, creates a wastewater rich in zinc. In the past, the sludge from this wastewater was sent to a smelter which recovered the zinc so that it could be reused. But once the wastewater was designated as hazardous, the regulatory requirements were so stiff that the smelter couldn't take it. Now the zinc ends up in a landfill (Frosch 1995, 181).
While earlier manufacturers didn't have such regulations, they were subject to the common law. They could be sued if they disposed of their waste improperly (as measured by the standard of the day). For example, Chicago meat-packers were sued in the 1850 for throwing their by-products in the Chicago River. After that, they had to transport most of their material far from the city to be buried (Clemen, 1923). But because they were free to innovate, they eventually found valuable uses for their by-products. The same was true for other producers, who had both legal and financial incentives to find productive uses for their wastes. Property rights protection, with freedom to innovate, solved the problem.
Today, most industrial ecologists assume that any industrial economy quickly turns into an unsustainable system where materials and energy are extracted, processed, used, and dumped in a linear flow into, through, and out of the economy. Yet virtually all historical evidence makes clear that this has never been the case. Instead of more central planning, what is needed to achieve the creation of
Ayres, Robert U., Towards Zero Emissions: Is There a Feasible Path?
Fontainebleau: INSEAD Working Paper #97/80/EPS, 1997.
Babbage, Charles, On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures, 4th edition, London:
Charles Knight, (Reprint 1986 by Augustus M. Kelley, Publishers), 1835 .
Clemen, Rudolf A., The American Livestock and Meat Packing Industry,
New York: The Ronald Press Company, 1923.
Frosch, Robert A.,
Scientific American 273 (3) (September), pp. 178-181, 1995.
Gertler, Nicholas, Industrial Ecosystems: Developing Sustainable Industrial Structures,
Master's Thesis (Technology and Policy), MIT, 1995.
Jacobs, Jane, The Economy of Cities, New York: Random House, 1969.
Koller, Theodor, The Utilization
of Waste Products: A Treatise
on the Rational Utilization,