Your beverage cup, my next sweater

Reuse is defining a new era of how things are made. It isn’t just recycling – it’s a re-imagining of the concepts of waste and value.

Founder of "Weaving the Streets" project, Marina Fernandez Ramos and her father Manuel display a canopy made of recycled material to protect people from summer heat in Valverde de la Vera, Spain, Aug. 26.

In 1993, the outdoor clothing company Patagonia had a novel idea. It spun used plastic containers into soft, insulating microfibers. The fleece anorak you reach for this autumn was once 25 detergent bottles.

Reusing waste has a long history, of course. The walls and building foundations of ancient Pompeii were made with crushed pottery. But on a warming planet of 8 billion people who are “overusing the Earth’s biocapacity by at least 56%, according to the Zoological Society of London, Patagonia’s model is fast becoming the imperative rather than the exception. Climate change, material scarcity, and plastic waste are driving innovations in consumption, manufacturing, and building design.

“The eventual result,” a World Economic Forum study said, will be “that a discarded item is no longer seen as ‘waste,’ but rather as a still-useful object about to enter a new phase of value generation.”

The outlines of this new era, in which waste management and energy savings propel a “circular economy” of use and reuse, are just beginning to be drawn. The European Green Deal, for example, seeks a 55% net reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 in part through new rules requiring all made goods to be “repairable, reusable, and recyclable.”

That goal is influencing everything from automobiles to architecture, and it carries lofty expectations of immediate benefits. A study by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation predicted that a shift from new to renewable materials could boost European gross domestic product from 4% to 11% and cut use of primary resources by 32% by 2030. In just over two years, Patagonia claims, all its products will be made from reusable and recycled materials – including its own worn-out clothing.

A new book due to be released this month, titled “Building for Change: The Architecture of Creative Reuse,” underscores the shifts in thought imposed by those targets. Moving away from “cycles of new build, refurbishment, and demolition” to a repurposing of existing buildings with existing materials starts with humility.

For a profession that prides itself on creative originality, the book notes, architecture based on reuse starts with “a more humble and time-consuming design process.”

A circular approach to manufacturing requires design decisions and material choices that anticipate the future value, use, and energy draw of each part of a made good. Car companies like Ford, BMW, and Toyota, for example, have begun rethinking their models based on their secondary usefulness – long after they have left the lot and landed in the junkyard. “There’s a lot of room for improvement at the end of life of the vehicle,” Greg Keoleian, a professor at the University of Michigan’s Center for Sustainable Systems, told The New York Times.

Confronted by two environmental emergencies, humanity is turning climate change and material waste into engines of innovation. One day it may even apply the lessons from that shift more broadly, dropping notions of inevitable decline for a view measured by renewed purpose.

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