In “Recycle Everything,” she points out several companies that have created sustainable business models that involve recycling their own products. For instance, in 1998 Xerox introduced a digital copier made up of 97 percent recyclable parts that she says has saved the company $250 million in remanufacturing and waste reduction while stopping more than 145 million pounds of trash from entering landfills. Her favorite is Interface Inc., a carpet manufacturer that created a process for bringing any type of used carpet back into production, regardless of fiber. It expects to divert 30 million pounds of carpet from landfills annually.
“That’s a miraculous example of what I’m talking about,” she writes.
Of course, the scope of Unruh’s vision is much broader, and even she will offer that adopting her system would involve a “leap of faith” on the part of manufacturers. But some environmentalists believe that at its core, the concept is not unfeasible.
“I think people tend to be cynical and dismissive of things that aren’t exactly directly familiar with the infrastructure of today,” said Paul Smith, a principle consultant for the Portland-based sustainable business consulting firm GreenSmith Consulting. He met Unruh at a mixer and was impressed enough by the thoroughness of her ideas to feature them on his TriplePundit blog. “What she’s talking about isn’t necessarily involving infrastructure as it’s currently set up,” he said. “There is some change that’s needed, but it sounds to me like it’s definitely possible.”
“If anything, with manufacturing it’s like a big tanker,” Smith added. “You can’t change it in a moment, but little turns over time? Yeah, it could happen.”
Unruh admits there are still large questions, namely the cost effectiveness of the entire process. To help find answers and possibly shepherd her system into existence, she established the Institute for Material Sustainability. She has four goals she hopes to accomplish through the institute: collaborate with chemical engineers on developing reusable materials; use those materials to create new products; construct an optimized model for material sustainability; and, eventually, evolve into a consulting firm to industries hoping to implement the model.
Meanwhile, as she waits for the institute to receive nonprofit status, Unruh wants to get her ideas out into the world’s collective bloodstream – because, she says, the true first step in her system is engaging imaginations.
“Once something can be imagined,” she said, “you can start engineering it.”
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