Published on December 18th, 2007 | by Stephanie Evans
The Green Basics of Reuse Philosophy
Grandpa remembers a farmyard scrap heap—a pile in back of the barn containing tractor engine bolts, lengths of fencing wire, nails, and old tool handles. Grandma remembers summer dresses and dish towels made from flour sacks, pouring her milk from a bottle that she’ll later use as a vase for daisies, and drinking it from a glass that once contained jelly.
“Waste not, want not” was a phrase embedded in our predecessors’ minds from childhood and is an intimate thread in the fabric of American history. And while it may no longer be second nature for most of us, these simple memories embody the philosophy of reuse. As with many other things, it is an old idea becoming new again.
The philosophy of reuse is certainly not unique to America’s history—for centuries tribal societies around the world have employed this technique of resource preservation. But as a greater number of consumers participate in the global economy, the demand for convenience and export packaging is overriding these traditional philosophies. Many areas around the globe lack organized systems of trash collection, recycling facilities and methods of resource distribution, and missing these infrastructures negatively impacts quality of life. It seems that industrialized nations are coming full-circle: Governments are passing regulations, businesses are cutting costs, and consumers are reducing waste in the realization that applying the reuse philosophy in all areas will help to sustain our comfortable quality of life, enhance it for others, and maintain it for future generations.
Today, we use a cornucopia of phrases to describe this mindset: reuse, reusing, reuse recycling, reclamation, reused or reclaimed products, and reuse options. We have reuse programs, centers, and facilities, in addition to businesses that are beginning to implement (and market) their cradle to cradle, zero waste, waste reduction, or waste reuse programs. Simply put, reuse means that an item is used more than once, whether conventionally (the item is used again for the same function), or new-life reuse (item is used for a new function). Grandpa and grandma’s motivation was primarily financial, while ours is increasingly environmental.
Reuse, loosely defined, is the “recovery and distribution of discarded, yet perfectly usable materials” that provides an excellent environmental and economical alternative to exportation and landfilling. Recycling utilizes additional time, money, energy, resources, and an extensive organizational effort to extract, sort, and re-distribute a discarded item’s raw materials. Reuse preserves these resources, including the value of the materials, labor, technology, and energy incorporated into the manufacturing process.
Repair and Overhaul. American businesses are employing the reuse philosophy in several ways: most extensively through remanufacturing, otherwise known as “repair and overhaul.” Remanufacturing involves the collection of valuable parts which are refurbished in a factory and set to meet the same specifications as new products. Examples of this include the collection of “one-use” cameras or toner cartridges, which the company then re-loads, re-packages, and re-sells. In the United States, there is an extensive array of consumer-protection laws in existence, designed to specify which products may be re-manufactured in order to distinguish between legitimate re-use and counterfeit products.
Deposit Refund. Another method of reuse is a deposit refund scheme in which a company offers the consumer a financial incentive to return packaging for reuse—glass bottle and aluminum can collection are the most common applications of this method.
Cradle to Cradle. By this reuse concept, the entire life cycle of a product is considered and becomes an intrinsic part of the product’s design process, and is thus an area of intense interest among forward-thinking manufacturers. According to this sector, the mindset of the Industrial Revolution, with its reliance on a seemingly never-ending abundance of resources, must be replaced. In its stead, cradle to cradle applications encourage product and packaging makers to manufacture designs and employ processes which mimic the natural processes of growth, use, and decay. These associated “closed loop” schemes are not typically visible to the average consumer, but are increasingly utilized in American businesses.
A closed loop system is one in which the manufacturer or retailer provides packaging that is returnable and/or reusable, but does not address the waste product generated (if any). Two examples of this resource recovery system with respect to the packaging industry are: returnable plastic grocery containers and a dry cleaner’s wire hangers. A major supermarket chain is experimenting with boxing their customers’ groceries in reusable plastic baskets for the trip home, which can be returned and used again on the customer’s next trip to the grocery store, perhaps someday eliminating the “paper-or-plastic” dilemma. The vast majority of dry cleaners are happy to accept returned wire hangers for reuse and they sometimes give small discounts on a customer’s order.
Other Methods. Refillable packaging and an environmental tax are two other practices employed by businesses aiming to reduce resource consumption. Refilling an empty package at a discounted price from a store’s discounted bulk supply encourages consumers to purchase one reusable item instead of several disposable items, thereby allowing a company to reduce some of the transportation and packaging costs associated with that item. Conversely, an environmental tax or surcharge imposed by a regulatory agency on a manufacturer (and ultimately, the consumer), offsets the negative impact of the product and/or encourages manufacturers to reduce associated pollution. Also called a Pigovian or sin tax, it is applied most often to alcohol and cigarettes.
Re-Giving. Finally, there is the more familiar “re-giving” option. Re-giving runs the gamut from the simple exchange of outgrown or unused items amongst friends or family, to patronizing antique or secondhand stores, to donating to charity or posting items on Web sites (such as eBay, Freecycle or craigslist).
According to charity industry sources, the average American throws away 67.9 pounds of used clothing and rags every year, which translates into an annual total of 20 billion pounds of used clothing and textiles that are tossed into landfills.
Repurpose and Waste Exchange
Repurposing used goods and even waste products is again, not a new idea, but one which requires modern revival—transportation costs and environmental regulations are prompting businesses and individuals to get creative and re-evaluate the usefulness of many waste products. One prime example of re-purposing a former waste product is the use of shredded tires as padding under playground structures.
“One man’s trash is another man’s treasure” is among the many adages being revived with fresh significance. While still fairly limited in practice, waste exchange uses waste product from one process as the raw material for another. This practice allows businesses to avoid the environmental costs of waste disposal while obtaining new raw material, thus keeping the waste out of the landfill and water treatment facilities. Waste exchange is still in relative stages of infancy, due to:
- The required organization of waste brokerage firms—companies which act as clearinghouses between waste buyers and sellers)
- The need for waste stream cataloging systems—to maintain an accurate inventory of the waste content and quantity)
- The establishment of formal guidelines which address consumer protection concerns
Advantages and Disadvantages
The consumer-oriented economical and environmental merits of reuse were easily recognized by our grandparents. And even today having a jar of salvaged nails, bolts, and screws can save several trips to the hardware store. But while the philosophy of reuse is working its way into the business sector, the complexities of a global economy demand that the practical advantages and disadvantages of reuse be continually discussed and evaluated. Here is a summary of reuse pros and cons, culled from an online discussion forum:
Cost savings. Businesses and consumers save on energy and raw materials through reduced resource extraction, waste disposal and transportation costs.
Waste Reduction. Useable goods and materials are kept out of the waste stream, and air and water pollution are reduced.
Economic Sustainability. Recycling of resources provides great potential for creating sustainable and well-paid jobs for workers in developing economies.
In addition, high value consumer goods are more readily available to low-income consumers.
Value of Appreciation. Generally more time was invested into making items of old, resulting in well crafted and high quality products which often appreciate in value over time.
Potential Environmental Cost. The environmental costs of reuse due to cleaning or transport may outweigh the environmental benefits.
Hazardous Waste Potential. Some items, such as freon appliances or infant auto seats, could become hazardous or less efficient as they continue to be used, thereby reducing their quality.
Infrastructure. Sorting and preparing items requires organization, physical space and time, which may be inconvenient for consumers and equate to added cost for businesses.
Not many of us will likely take the time to straighten out a bent nail or drink our chai tea out of a jelly jar . . . but modern applications of the traditional values of thrift and frugality encourage us not to take more than we need and thus extend the earth beyond its means. Applying reuse to our daily life choices and business models has enormous potential for local and global economic savings, and great potential to help us actively decrease our impact on the environment.