Recycling PlaybookReduce, reuse and recycle are separate but interconnected concepts that support the same goal of maintaining a healthy world. Though they sound and appear similar, reduce, reuse and recycle are distinct elements in the language of resource conservation. “Recycling” is a term that virtually everyone is familiar with. Unfortunately, it’s also a term that people frequently confuse with Investment Recovery. So IR professionals need to be especially aware of the terminology that laypeople have heard, but may not truly understand. This article tries to cover the landscape, so to speak.
Copious amounts of garbage resulting from a consumption-driven and densely populated society have led waste managers to adopt and promote an approach to the waste problem summarized by the phrase “reduce, reuse and recycle”—the waste hierarchy. This slogan reminds consumers (both corporate and residential) of the actions they can take to minimize the burdens that their waste creates: reducing waste, reusing waste when possible and recycling waste into goods for tomorrow.
Reduce: The first and most effective component of the waste hierarchy is reducing the waste created. Consumers are encouraged to reduce their waste by purchasing in bulk, buying items with less packaging and switching to reusable instead of single-use items. Businesses can adopt manufacturing methods that require fewer resources and generate less waste. In addition to benefiting the environment, these efforts often offer consumers and businesses the financial incentive of lower expenses in purchase cost.
Keeping purchases to a minimum is an important way of reducing the toll on the Earth’s resources. Lowering consumption is the key to the concept of reducing, which can apply to physical objects as well as natural resources, such as gas, electricity and water. Not to be confused with reusing or recycling, reducing means lowering or eradicating use from the start. Cutting back on unnecessary purchases lowers the rate at which materials are used, but also effectively lowers the energy, gas and transportation costs that are accrued when an item is made and sold. The term “reduce” clearly applies to lifestyle. Reducing driving would mean combining trips, carpooling, and walking, biking, and taking public transportation when possible. Taking shorter showers, landscaping appropriately to the local climate and replacing older, less efficient appliances with Energy Star appliances all fit under the reducing concept.
The now long-standing recession has corporations on a reduced lifestyle as well. Corporate travel for training and client visits was dramatically cut back following the events of 9/11, and it hasn’t fully rebounded since. Skype and GoToMeeting have replaced what used to be long trips for short meetings. Sustainable or green building design and construction is increasingly at the top of the list of construction goals for major corporations and municipalities.
Reuse: “Reuse” is a broad term that combines reusing materials and using items that have reusable qualities. Paper plates are an example of a nonreusable product. Cutlery that can be reused prevents waste at the landfill, but it also lowers the amount of energy needed to manufacture new products. Less pollution results, and more natural resources are left intact. Consider the possibilities of an item before discarding it, as it might be reused toward a different purpose than originally intended. An old shirt may become a car rag. Though reuse is different from reducing use, when an item is reused, consumption is reduced as a by-product.
Despite efforts to reduce the amount of waste generated, consumers and businesses still create substantial waste. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that each American generates about 4.3 pounds of waste daily. Much of this waste can immediately be reused to minimize the strain on the environment and municipal waste management. For example, consumers can refill a purchased bottle of water with water from home to minimize the number of plastic bottles being discarded. Consumers have a financial incentive here as well, as municipal water is far cheaper than bottled water.
Recycle: The term “recycle” refers to the process in which an item or its components are used to create something new. Plastic bottles are recycled and made into carpet, pathways and benches. Glass and aluminum are other commonly recycled materials. Recycling is technically a form of reusing, but it refers more specifically to items that are discarded and broken down into their raw materials. Recycling companies convert the original item and then sell the now-usable material. Some companies purchase secondhand material and use it to manufacture a new product, which is another form of recycling.
When waste is eventually discarded, segregating items for recycling from other waste is important. Recyclables include glass, newspaper, aluminum, cardboard and a surprising array of other materials. Lead, for example, has one of the highest recyclingrates because of laws requiring the recycling of lead-acid batteries. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, recycled lead accounts for almost 90 percent of the lead used in manufacturing today.
Disposal: Waste that cannot be reused or recycled in some form eventually finds its way to disposal. This disposal includes landfills, but an increasing number of municipalities have elected to divert waste into resource recovery. These recovery methods use the waste to generate electricity or produce raw materials for industry. However, resource recovery is not without its own undesirable effects, such as pollution from incinerators. Some waste, however, is not suitable for resource recovery methods.
The most effective waste reduction strategy is not to create waste in the first place. This obviously applies both to consumers…and the biggest consumers…large organizations.
Tips for How to Reduce, Reuse and Recycle as Individuals
Step 1: Consume less to begin with. Waste does not begin when you throw a product away. Every step in the production process, including the extraction of raw materials, transportation, processing and manufacturing, produces waste. Consumer demand creates products. Less demand means less production.
Step 2: Reduce consumption of toxic waste. Select naturally derived and nonhazardous materials for cleaning products and garden pesticides. Purchase the smallest amount possible of a toxic product, or share it with a friend or neighbor to decrease the need to throw away the remainder.
Step 3: Consider the necessity of an item before purchasing. Borrow infrequently used items, or check secondhand stores for used options.
Step 4: Donate unwanted clothing, household items and building materials to a reuse center in your community. Shop at these stores when possible to avoid purchasing new clothing, products and materials.
Step 5: Repurpose unwanted items. Reuse containers with lids—such as large-mouth condiment jars—for storing leftovers or for dry goods instead of purchasing new storage containers. Use grocery sacks to line garbage cans to reduce the need for trash bags. Encourage your children to think of creative uses for household waste products in craft projects and school assignments.
Step 6: Check with your local municipality to determine what can be recycled in your area. For example, some recycling centers can handle cardboard but not glass, while others might accept only No. 1 or No. 2 plastics. Purchase products in containers recyclable in your municipality.
Step 7: Purchase products made from postconsumer recycled content to complete the recycling loop. Postconsumer recycled products refer to those used by consumers and then recycled. A product made from recycled content may have come from a damaged or excess item produced during the manufacturing process and not from a local recycling program.
Step 8: Compost yard and food waste. These constitute almost one-third of U.S. municipal waste. Composting with these materials instead of discarding them will decrease landfill waste and create a useful product from would-be garbage.
Recycling does more than just keep renewable resources from the landfill—it reduces the impact on the environment beyond your immediate sphere. Besides saving landfill space, recycling glass, aluminum and plastic containers saves a considerable amount of energy compared to creating new products from raw materials.
Recycling is a topic that anyone in your corporation can understand and appreciate. The comparisons of the potential energy savings of different materials are interesting, pretty impressive and something with which all IR professionals should be familiar.
Most of the glass salvaged through recycling is made into new bottles and jars. Glass recycling involves crushing waste glass into small pellets known as cullet. Manufacturers create new containers from up to 70 percent cullet, mixing it with raw materials to achieve specific color or quality standards. Each 10 percent of cullet in the mix reduces the energy required to make new containers by 2 to 3 percent.
Aluminum recycling is a very efficient process. Aluminum can be melted down and reused repeatedly with little loss in quality. Creating an aluminum can out of recycled materials requires only 5 percent as much energy as creating a brand-new can from bauxite ore. Recycling one ton of aluminum saves the equivalent of almost 32 barrels of oil, significantly reducing the carbon footprint of the manufacturing process. In fact, recycling just one aluminum can saves enough energy to power a television set for the three hours that it takes to watch a football game!