Want to Reduce your Waste? Recycle, Yes. But Reuse First!
Editor’s Note: We often think of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle from our consumer point of view. Here’s an interesting article from the point of view of the business of waste management.
Recycling today is big news—and even bigger business. In fact, as the industry attempts to keep up with our ever-growing piles of trash, there’s fresh excitement around how new innovations might provide the answer to a crisis that is very quickly becoming the defining issue of our age. Whether it’s the fight against single-use plastic or unpicking the complexities of e-waste, it seems that every day someone is making headlines for a ground-breaking new approach to our waste.
However, while this renaissance in recycling is well overdue (and a vital piece of the waste management puzzle), it may be guilty of obscuring another important step in how we should be dealing with our waste.
Before we ever think of recycling the products and packaging that we consume, we should first find effective and efficient ways to reuse them.
Reduction and reuse (in that order), are the only ways to support a nascent recycling industry that cannot possibly cope with the way we currently consume and produce waste.
The Importance of Reuse
As part of the waste management hierarchy, reuse comes after reduction but before recycling in order of priority.
In other words, you should reuse ahead of recycling.
Wherever possible, we should be aiming to reuse products in order to extract maximum benefit from the resources used to manufacture them. Reuse has huge benefits over recycling that are often overlooked. These include:
Recycling is expensive, and the costs are likely to hit consumers in two ways. First, the disposable mindset means we must buy new products instead of using things we already have. Second, the predicted rise in the complexity of municipal recycling facilities is likely to raise taxes.
Recycling is energy intensive. Waste products must be processed (often multiple times) before usable materials can be reclaimed. These processes are often complex and inefficient when compared to manufacturing new items. This is one of the reasons that disposable goods are so popular with manufacturers.
Recycling is polluting. Alongside the mechanical processing, in some cases toxic chemicals must be used to separate materials from one another (e-waste recycling is particularly toxic). Reusing items negates the need for processing and keeps goods in circulation for as long as possible.
Changing Consumer Attitudes
Recycling encourages disposal. Today, many consumers know that recycling is better than sending products to landfill. However, this has created a phenomenon known as “aspirational recycling”. This means that many items are placed in recycling bins when they are, in fact, non-recyclable. It also helps support the disposable mindset where we do not value products as much as we should.
Changing Manufacturer Attitudes
Recycling encourages manufactures to make disposable goods. By reusing things, we force manufacturers to think again about the need for disposable and single use products. This pushes manufacturers towards reduction—the ideal approach towards waste management.
Reuse for the 21st Century
In the past, reusing and repurposing goods and other items was much more popular than it is today. However, while your grandparents may have saved jars, bottles, plastic tubs, and even old clothes and electronics, the practice has fallen somewhat out of favor.
Today, consumers are much more likely to purchase new items that essentially do the same job as many of the items we already consume on a daily basis.
In order to reduce our waste and minimize the burden on the recycling industry, the priority is to to once again find ways to keep products useful for as long as possible. Here are a few approaches that will help you achieve this:
Reuse for the Same Purpose
Almost all single use products can be used many times for the same purpose. Glass jars are ideal for storing food after you have consumed the contents of the original. Even plastic water bottles can be reused multiple times for the same purpose—just refill them.
Reuse for a Different Purpose
Even when goods are no longer fit for their original purpose, there are many ways to keep them out of the recycling box.
- Old clothes make excellent rags and cloths.
- Broken plastic bags can be used as liners for planters.
- Scrap paper can be used for almost anything—from starting your barbeque to origami food containers.
Upcycling is among the more creative methods of reusing goods. There are literally thousands of ways products can be repurposed and given a new life. From turning plastic containers into plant pots to sewing old jeans into fashionable shoulder bags, the only limit is your imagination.
Donation and/or Selling
Many of the goods that we consume are simply left to gather dust until they are no longer of use. Donating or selling working goods is much better than letting them see out a sad life tucked away in a drawer. Even non-functional goods such as old electronics may find a new home when broken down to spare parts. One person’s trash is another’s treasure.
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