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How Reusing Should Always Come Before Waste Removal

Today we have a guest blog post from Kris Rayner.  Thanks for a great blog post, Kris!

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It is common to see the “Three R’s” of waste management given as: Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. The order in which these steps are listed is important, since it represents the path in which the waste stream flows and describes each decision point at which the waste stream itself can become more manageable. To these three “R’s,” it is only realistic to add a fourth: Remove. It is inevitable that there will be some waste which will have to be removed, when all is said and done.

By placing these steps in this particular order, the efficiency, cost and effectiveness of waste management can be controlled to the greatest extent possible. “Reduce,” at the headwaters of the waste stream, so to speak, is the first decision point. Consider the amount and type of packaging, for example. Over-packaging has become, as it should be, a matter of public discussion, but it is the decision of the manufacturer how to package a product. Bright, attractive and resistant to shoplifting seem to be the primary considerations for most retail packaging, but these choices can be affected by both buying habits and direct communication with the manufacturer by the consumer. These are effective, since manufacturers are in the business of selling their products, and are always sensitive to anything – including packaging – which influences buying decisions.

It is at the post-consumer level, after the package has been opened and the product has been used, that waste management on the individual level begins. At this point, there are three choices: reuse, recycle and remove. (The last, of course, includes the option of tossing the material into a closet or letting it molder in the garage.) Recycling seems to present a nice balance between the convenience of just shoving the stuff into a garbage bag and that satisfying feeling of being a responsible consumer. The other option, to re-use, is actually even more responsible and makes more sense in terms of economic self-interest.

Recycling seems like it’s a step above simple removal to a landfill – and it is, since by definition the material will be recovered and made into something else – but it does have a cost. It costs effort, energy and, in most cases, government (and therefore taxpayer) money. The recycling station has to truck the containers full of materials to a recycling center, which takes gasoline or diesel fuel. A recycling center, particularly one which accepts mixed materials (cardboard, newspaper, metal cans of various materials, plastic of many varieties), must sort the waste into piles by type. Grinding up the plastic or glass, pulping the cardboard and newspaper, shredding and melting the metal – all of that takes energy, in massive quantities. True, it takes less energy (recycling an aluminum can takes only 20% of the energy of smelting bauxite into aluminum to begin with) and uses fewer resources (mining, timber cutting), but it isn’t a free ride. Also, there are some items for which the supply available for recycling is much greater than either demand or the cost of recycling makes economic sense. Glass, in particular, is a problematic material for recycling; the stuff is heavy and there simply aren’t that many uses for ground glass that have been developed.

So, while recycling is a step above removal for dumping, it is only a small step. It is, in the final analysis, simply a different way of disposing of waste. Which brings up the question: What is “waste”? By definition, waste is something for which there is no practical use. Looked at in that light, the amount of true “waste” begins to decrease immediately.

Reuse (and re-purposing) can always be the first option, or at least an option which can be considered first. Reuse of packing material (everything from those annoying Styrofoam peanuts to wadded-up newspaper) is an obvious first step. After all, if it worked well enough to get stuff to a place, won’t it be equally effective in protecting a shipment to somewhere else? From there it’s only a simple matter of imagination. How many plastic water bottles are recycled? Can they be reused or repurposed? Grocery bags? Leftover paint? Cloth and clothing? Grey water? Some types of food? Buttons! (If all of this is beginning to look like saving string… so what? How often does a piece of string actually wear out?) 

If and when, finally, in-house reuse or repurpose for an item is beyond practical application, there are always reuse stores. Some retail reuse stores will even pay for items in reasonably good condition; not much, perhaps, but certainly more than the hidden cost of removal or recycling. Even if the item can’t be sold for reuse, most non-profit organizations which accept items for reuse will typically provide forms which allow donors to claim tax deductions. Not only do donations-in-kind result in the reuse of materials and provide a financial advantage for the donor, but it decreases the overhead of the non-profit organization since they do not have to buy new materials.

In the end, though, there is waste. Real can’t-be-used-for-anything-at-all waste. Even as that remarkably small amount of true waste is bagged and ready to be removed, the final decision has yet to be made: Where is it going? Given a choice – and most people have some choice – the final resting place should make some sense. Municipal and private waste disposal no longer has any excuse to resort to ocean dumping or unsealed landfills. The final “R” is just as important as the first three.

Guest post contributed by Kris Rayner, on behalf of GeneralWasteCollection.co.uk, specialists in the collection, disposal and recycling of general waste collection.