09/27/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Trash: There's No Such Thing

I am a flat-footed, fleece wearing computer user. While I do what I can to reduce waste, the nature of my physical and economical needs is such that I produce a lot of garbage. I wish I could wear the same pair of running shoes forever, I wish I didn't misplace hats and gloves so often and I wish that tech gizmos weren't hardwired to break down after 24 months. While it's relatively straightforward for me to recycle paper, bottles and cans, I was not always clear about where to dump heartier plastics, metals and large-scale batteries. Fortunately the fate of rubber soles, plastic clothes and battery-powered devices does not have to be--and should not be--the regular dumpster.

A number of great recycling programs have been created by companies like Nike, Patagonia, Dell and Apple. Each will take a product from another manufacturer and turn it into something of its own design--a pair of Air Force Ones, a fleece jacket or a new PC. Nike, the most accommodating of all, lets you drop of your old pair of kicks (any brand) at a wide range of locations. The company's "Let Me Play: Reuse-A-Shoe program" then picks up your shoes and "grinds" them into a new pair. The only caveat: no stilettos, combat boots or other fancy or metallically infused shoes.

Send your old polar fleece to Patagonia's Common Threads Garment Recycling program and your worn out duds will be turned into new gear. The company accepts fleece items from any manufacturer as well as Patagonia cotton T-shirts and other polyester and nylon 6 products with a "Common Threads" tag. (An especially admirable Patagonia practice is advising users who shop at the catalog not to purchase what they don't need.)

When it comes to computers, Dell lets you recycle your PC for free without paying high prices for shipping. If you buy a new Dell, the company will even accept recyclables from other computer manufacturers. Unlike Dell, Apple's "Take Back" program can get costly, since you have to ship your old computer or iPod to a specific recycling location. Apple does make a point of reducing the environmental impact on the products it designs, however, which is worth supporting.

While any manufacturing company would do well to design, manufacture and market products in an environmentally sound way, the companies I've mentioned have made an admirable start--and finish. Their ability to turn would-be junk into new materials proves that it's possible to make even the trendiest and tech-iest goods out of garbage. These examples set the bar higher for other manufacturers. But there is still more that Nike, Patagonia, Dell and Apple can do.

They should start by offering rebates when customers recycle their products. Companies could track this by setting up drop-off centers in their stores, which would make recycling easier, bring people back and offer customers incentive to keep buying. Eco-conscious companies should also establish a more ubiquitous drop-off program and should pay for shipping if goods need to be sent to a recycling facility.

With efficient programs in place, recycling could be a cost-effective process for virtually all manufacturers. On average it takes about 30% less energy to make a water bottle out of preexisting plastic. The same can be said for many other materials including glass, metal, rubber and paper. The environmental dream of turning the majority of garbage into new materials would come true if companies could get incentives to take the necessary steps at improving the efficiency of their recycling programs, thereby making the practice cost-effective. Though some companies argue that pre-used products do not yield much material compared to their weight and volume and are expensive to store or transport, the problem could be solved if the government, distributors and regular citizens helped streamline the process.

Developing a more sophisticated and consumer-based recycling system would take considerable government funding to get off its feet, but would be well worth the effort both environmentally and economically. Imagine a world where shoe, clothes and computer drop-offs were so omnipresent that recycling became an afterthought. If the government helped pay companies to ship these pre-existing materials--or offered companies tax breaks for reusing old resources--then manufacturers could afford to develop more sophisticated shipping and recycling processes and reduce the need for raw material.

Distributors should also get involved. Stores like Home Depot and Wal-Mart should set up recycling centers for customers to dispose of both packaging material and used items. If the recycling procedure becomes advanced enough to allow companies to generate profit via saved expense on shipping and production, companies could create buy-back programs allowing consumers or distributors to send back pre-manufactured supplies--thereby creating an incentive for consumers to continue using their products.

Until the government, manufacturers and distributors are willing to make the necessary investments in such a process, it is up to the individual consumer to seek out the best methods for "trash" disposal. Most of the items that we throw away can become something else. Before you kick your old shoes to the curb, think about what they could become. If you feel particularly inspired, get the process started by setting up more recycling stations in your area--your state home page will have information to help.