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August 29, 2008

Why Reuse Trumps Recycling and Reduce Trumps ‘em Both

Every Monday morning I hear the procession of truck engines and hydraulic arms working their way through my neighborhood. One truck comes for my trash, a second for my green waste (lawn clippings and such), and the last picks up my recycling. The trash is eventually buried, the green waste composted, and the recycling, well, recycled. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, and all that jazz, but have you ever wondered what happens to all that recycled stuff we throw away?

That’s right – throw away. Just because the bin’s a different color doesn’t change the significance of this wasteful action. One could argue that while recycling has its virtues, it actually goes a long way toward encouraging waste. We throw our recycling in the blue or green bin, and a truck hauls it out of sight and out of mind. We hope that these materials are eventually refashioned into something useful once again, but is the process of recycling itself really green? Sure it’s better than the alternative (burying it), but how green is recycling? I guess it depends. In an attempt to answer this question, let’s take a look at the afterlife of a discarded plastic bottle.

After you’ve enjoyed that cold bottle of water and tossed it in the recycling bin a lengthy chain of events kicks off to convert that plastic bottle into something new and exciting, right? Well, 80 percent of the time, your bottle winds up in the landfill anyway regardless of your intentions. For the 20 percent that make the journey to resurrection, it’s a long arduous road.

Your bottle is tossed into a container marked for recycling. Once a week, a large diesel fueled truck rumbles through your neighborhood and collects these relics and hauls them off to a sorting center. There your bottle is separated from the riffraff and joins ranks with millions of bottles just like it and is compacted into large cubes or shredded and baled. From here, your bottle is placed onto another diesel truck or train and usually exported to China for use in manufacturing plastic stuff.

After arriving in China via container ship, your bottle is loaded on another diesel truck where it is transported to a facility that processes the bales into plastic pellets. These pellets are the primary ingredient used in molded and extruded plastic. The pellets are eventually shipped to a factory where they are molded into something you might find useful again, packaged, and loaded onto a diesel truck; taken to the port; loaded onto a container ship; sent across the Pacific, loaded onto another diesel truck, taken to a distribution center, loaded onto another truck, delivered to the store, purchased by you, brought home, used for a brief time, and finally re-recycled.

The amount of energy consumed to recycle your bottle is immense. So immense in fact, that the earth would’ve been significantly better off if you drank that water out of the tap from a glass rather than from a bottle.

So it seems clear that while recycling is ok and clearly better than tossing refuse into a landfill, it’s not exactly an environmental panacea and may in fact promote the very behavior it’s intended to eliminate – egregious wastefulness.

A far superior alternative is Reuse. Why not take something in its present form and reuse it? This concept seems like common sense, but every year billions of pounds of perfectly good stuff ends up in landfills: kitchen cabinets, windows, doors, sinks, tubs, tile, paint, wood beams, countertops, paneling, office furniture & supplies, appliances, ad infinitum. This waste could build thousands of new homes and shelters without the costly energy input of ‘recycling’ it first. It’s this very niche that Materials Matter has carved out for itself, and is why to date Materials Matter has diverted over 75 million pounds of building materials destined for the landfill to construction projects benefiting other non-profits.

Keeping the material away from the landfill or recycling process is important, but equally important is the cost savings beneficiary organizations realize when they use recovered building materials in their construction projects. Unlike recycled products that often cost more than their ‘new’ counterparts, reused materials can often be had for pennies on the dollar thereby significantly reducing construction costs for cash strapped agencies. Often, these materials are reused in the very same communities where they are recovered further reducing the environmental impact.

Even more compelling is the fact that a lot of this recovered material is brand new. That’s right, brand spankin’ new. Let’s say, for example, that you order some custom blinds for your home, but the order is messed up so you send the blinds back. What do you think happens to those blinds you sent back while you wait for the factory to make you new and hopefully correct ones? Landfill? That used to be the case. Fortunately, more companies are teaming up with organizations like Materials Matter to find homes for their unwanted or mis-measured wares. In addition, more homeowners are deconstructing or eco-demolishing their remodeling projects as they realize that a charitable tax deduction beats paying a contractor to rip out and throw away perfectly good kitchen cabinets and bathroom sinks. Without Materials Matter and agencies like it, our society would miss out on a significant opportunity to reduce our collective ecological impact. Reuse trumps recycling at every turn, but we can do even better.

I mentioned earlier that one could make the argument that recycling encourages the wrong behavior, wastefulness, and while it’s good we’re conserving natural resources by recycling them over and over again, we’d be far better off if we recycled less – literally. Less packaging, fewer bottles, fewer bags. Imagine if everyone refilled the same water bottle or coffee cup every day. Imagine if everyone used canvass shopping bags, bought concentrated cleaning products (which use less packaging), cooked whole foods (again less packaging), and generally consumed less. Less consumption equals less recycling. Less recycling equals less waste (energy). Less waste equals less want.

My grandmother used to always tell me when I wouldn’t finish my dinner, “Waste not. Want not.” As we waste, there are multitudes that want. Materials Matter fills a crucial societal role by wanting the waste and wasting not.