In Aluminum Upcycled, Carl A. Zimring makes the case that, regardless of the material one focuses on, successful recycling, even for material as recyclable as aluminum, depends upon one thing above all else: design that takes the process of disposal, collection, and recycling into account. This well-written book makes it clear that producers need to pay far more attention to this aspect of the equation if we are to make significant movement toward more sustainable uses of our material resources. In a brief introduction, Zimring points to the current interest in “upcycling” as a strategy for reusing material sustainably. The term refers to the practice of using discarded material to produce products having a higher value than that associated with the material’s first use. An example is using recycled plastic in the manufacture of shoes. Zimring then examines the potential and limits of this design strategy through a history of the production, use, and recycling of aluminum. The first three chapters (of six) focus on aluminum’s journey from being a scarce and expensive material in the late nineteenth century to a recyclable, mass-produced metal a century later. In the years after World War I, interest in light aircraft bodies led to a steady expansion of the aluminum industry, with World War II fueling a period of rapid growth. After the war, when the military’s demand for aluminum dropped, producers such as Alcoa and the Reynolds Metals Company sought out other markets for this light and versatile metal. Many of the resulting products, such as folding lawn chairs and inexpensive aluminum siding, were relatively flimsy and gave rise to a perception of the metal as being used in low-quality products. Other items—such as foils used in food packaging and, later, aluminum beverage cans—were designed to be discarded after one use. The popular perception of aluminum as more environmentally friendly than other materials emerged after cities and states, faced with a growing litter problem, established systems for collecting and recycling beverage containers. Given that producers can re-melt scrap aluminum to supplement the demand for virgin material, the economics of recycling aluminum are quite good. However, Zimring notes, the recycling of aluminum is not effortless or free of environmental impacts. What we call aluminum is actually a wide variety of alloys, all with different properties and characteristics. To be most effective, any system for collecting discarded aluminum should separate the various alloys so that producers know what is going into their furnaces. In addition, Zimring points out that producers of consumer goods generally have not designed their products with this type of separation in mind. Even the recycling of aluminum cans requires one to pay attention to coatings and paints. In the second half of the book, Zimring turns his examination to the use of aluminum in higher-valued items. First, he examines its use in vehicles, many of which have increased in value over time. Then, he turns to high-end aluminum chairs (such as those designed by Herman Miller, Inc.) and aluminum-body guitars (many of which have become collector’s items). Examining the history of products such as these, Zimring posits, can help us place the strategy of upcycling in historical perspective. These chapters, which unfold as a history of design and popular culture, provide one with a good sense of why and how these aluminum-based products came to be highly coveted and, instead of being discarded, live on as repairable items, collectibles, or both. However, the source and fate of the aluminum used in these products is a relatively small part of the story, and in the case of guitars, the quantity of aluminum involved is minor. Perhaps the most revealing example is the Ford Motor Company’s ambitious conversion of its popular F-150 pickup truck to an aluminum-bodied vehicle. Here, in addition to using aluminum to reduce the truck’s weight and increase its fuel efficiency, engineers also took steps to improve the recycling of scrap aluminum generated during production. A company executive described the vehicle as the “most sustainable truck ever to roll off a Ford assembly line” (98). But, Zimring observes, little was done to address end-of-life issues, with F-150s eventually having to go through the same shredders as steel cars and trucks, all of which produce a toxic fluff of nonmetals. A similar critique has been made of Apple’s aluminum-bodied laptop. These designs are a success in terms of aesthetics, performance, and efficient production but weak where innovation is needed most, in designing products to be more recyclable after use. Zimring ends Aluminum Upcycled with the observation that upcycling, while desirable, is not—by itself—an effective strategy for sustainable resource use. In the case of aluminum, primary production (the amount of virgin material being introduced into circulation each year) has continued to grow at a steadily increasing rate. He suggests that increasing the level of recycling to a point where primary production declines will take a mixture of innovation at the systems level and policies that encourage movement in that direction. Among other things, he argues that “upcycling absent a cap on primary material extraction does not close industrial loops so much as it fuels environmental exploitation” (163, emphasis in original). What kind of innovation might be encouraged by policies that reduce the ability of producers to treat the cost of disposal as an externality? Certainly, Zimring suggests, such policies will increase the interest of producers in designing products for more efficient disposal and recycling. Zimring also provides a glimpse of other possibilities when he notes that “the most sustainable automobile design of the twenty-first century” might not be the F-150 aluminum truck or the Tesla or any vehicle but new transportation services such as “automobile sharing programs” that reduce the quantity of automobiles in circulation (164). Indeed, sustainable design at the level of policy and systems is even more important than design at the level of products; Zimring’s focus on the latter places the limits of strategies such as upcycling in broader perspective. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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