Think reuse before recycle

(First published April 2007, Updated October 2010)

The recycling movement has gathered plenty of steam in recent years which is wonderful as there is far less waste hitting our landfills and far more resources being reclaimed.

However, there is concern building that the recycling wave is allowing us to still be rampant consumers, a throwaway society; and recycling some justification for maintaining this mindset.

Take for example those very handy cans of gourmet tuna. These are great to pack in a lunch box but I can empty the contents with a single mouthful! I can alleviate my guilt somewhat by recycling the can, but in order to get that mouthful of tuna, an awful lot of resources have gone into the packaging – and that’s not to mention the added costs in purchasing products using “convenience packaging“.

What’s more economical and energy efficient is buying a larger can of tuna and spooning out the equivalent amount into a reusable container. The only problem there is if the contents of the larger can aren’t eaten – and food waste is another massive environmental problem.

It’s the same sort of situation with a plethora of other products – cans vs. large bottles of drink, traveller packs of anything – all these handy sizes which cost us more can be recycled; but we forget the amount of energy it takes to do so.

While the energy required to recycle the aluminum in a drink can is one twentieth of that to produce the can from raw materials; when you start thinking in terms of billions of cans; it’s still a lot of energy consumed. You can buy the equivalent of 5 cans in a plastic PET recyclable bottle and I suspect (I’m not sure on this) that the recycling process would require less energy (although PET bottles are actually downcycled).

The downcycling aspect is another trap many of us fall into – downcycling is different to recycling in that the packaging being processed is made into something of less value. True recycling is where more of the same product is made; but the term has been extended to cover a variety of different actions.

The case for reuse

In terms of larger items, let’s say an old busted washing machine – we can send it to scrap merchants who may strip it of useful components for recycling which is great; but Fred from down the road is handy with washing machines and he may find that it just needs a fuse or some cheap component. Fred may be able to make use of it or resell the item. Reuse extends the life of a product before it has to hit the recycling stage. You may have saved Fred (or someone else) some cash in having to buy a new washer, so there’s also a definite feel good aspect to re-use aside from the consumption issue.

According to a (rather old) article on the US EPA’s Institute for Local Self-Reliance site, “New recycling-based manufacturers create 25 times the number of jobs as landfilling. Some reuse operations employ 200 jobs for every one job at a disposal facility.”

With the growing number of people understanding that reuse is the first option before recycle, all sorts of groups have started up where you can offer your items for free to others who can make use of them. One such service is The Freecycle Network™ which currently has nearly 7.6 million members globally. 

Another interesting service is ecofreek; which searches over 45+ sources for free and swappable items being given away by people who no longer need them

I’ve read some amazing stories of people who believed *no-one* could make use of their junk, only to find it snapped up when posted to these sorts of sites.

There are also an increasing number of trash removal services that will sort through your waste for you, diverting whatever possible for composting, recycling and reuse. These services cost a little more, but in my opinion are well worth the money.

So, recycling (in all its forms) is bad then?

While some will understandably frown upon the heavy emphasis of recycling for the reasons above; I still think that recycling is an incredibly important thing to encourage. Aside from the reclamation of resources, recycling is a “gateway” green action.
So many people start their green journey by recycling. It’s these easy actions than can encourage bigger changes down the track. For those of us down the green road a little however, the reuse vs. recycle issues are something we should bear in mind.
Even more importantly, we need to reduce the amount we consume – that’s why the 3R’s of green living are in the order they are – Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.