Why Recycling Should Be Our Last Resort

The Hierarchy of waste, Recycled vs. Recyclable and the difference between up & down cycling explained.

“It’s okay to buy this because I will recycle it”.

Due to the strong greenwashing efforts and investment heavy marketing machines of certain corporations, many people around the world now believe that we can just keep consuming as we have always done, as long as we properly recycle.

We don’t want to bum you out, but… That’s wrong! Utterly, completely, outrageously wrong. It’s not only wrong, it’s also a dangerous misunderstanding, people who actually want to do the right thing are now steered in an unsustainable and destructive direction. 

To make the road to sustainable living a little bit less bumpy, academics created a framework called the six R’S of Sustainability. (Joshi et al. 2006)

The Six Rs form the roadmap for sustainable consumption, it’s about finding workable solutions to social and environmental imbalances through more responsible behaviour by everyone. They are also sometimes referred to as the R’S of the waste hierarchy; Rethink, Refuse, Repair, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. The first R keeps you safely away from adding waste to the already huge amount that is circling the earth, the last R still keeps the waste off the garbage belt but it’s getting close.

RRRRRR, The Six R’s of Sustainability

Rethink

The first R in the six R’s of sustainability is pretty straightforward. Just rethink, reconsider. Is this purchase really needed? Is there another way this can be achieved that doesn’t require the use of new resources? Do you really need a new car or can you also get around with public transport? Can you swap clothes with your friends once you feel it’s time for a new look? Or borrow the power drill from your neighbours?  (The average time a power drill is used in its lifetime is between six and twenty minutes).

Rethinking goes beyond reconsidering buying stuff. You can also rethink what you can do differently in your life to decrease your footprint. The most well-known ones are swapping animal products for plant-based food and minimizing air travel instead hop on the train. 

Refuse

Stop yourself from buying stuff you simply don’t need. Stuff you think you want but which will end up in the back of the closet after a week or two or worse in the trash after just a couple of minutes. The most well-known example is refusing straws and other types of single-use plastics. Although refusing to use straws is a cute gesture it doesn’t actually make a significant difference. If you really want to play a part in ocean conservation and a safer future for marine animals you are better off not eating fish anymore. Fishing gear makes up an estimated 10% of ocean plastic. The other 90% is made up out of other types of debris and lots and lots of plastic packages. Often packages of which the producers claim are recyclable or compostable. 

Reduce

Reduce is all about decreasing the resources we use and the products we buy. It focuses on slowing down the current pace of consumption of goods. If we use less, we produce less and we waste less. You can reduce it by finding ways to stretch the length of time you use a product. E.g. using a delicates bag when washing your clothes to make your clothes last longer. 

Reuse

Reusing like reducing aims to decrease the number of resources and products we use. Reuse means reusing a certain product and therefore extending its life and decreasing the need for new products. It also means that we reuse the products that we already have until they literally fall apart. If you want to go zero waste you don’t need a new water bottle, tote bags and fancy stainless steel lunchboxes. This is literally trying to produce less waste by buying new products that eventually will end up as waste.

Before you buy a new water bottle use the (probably less stylish ones) you already have. Reuse the plastic bags you have stored away deep in that cupboard instead of buying a new tote bag. The tote bag might look more sustainable but a cotton tote bag is estimated to have a way larger environmental impact than a standard plastic shopping bag. You will need to use the tote bag 172 times for every single time you use the normal plastic shopping bag. (Source: LCA UK’s environment agency)

E.g. technical products can be refurbished and reused multiple times over by various users, with minimal loss of quality and minimal need for enhancement or change. Refurbishing often means deep cleaning the product and restoring it (in the case of technology) to its factory settings before it moves on to the next user. This doesn’t mean that tote bags are worse than plastic bags, you just need to reuse them many many times to justify the environmental footprint. Luckily if you take good care of your stuff a tote bag will serve you for years. 

Repair / Refurbish

Repairing or refurbishing products is the process of bringing products back to their original function and that prolongs the duration of life. Think about instead of throwing out, fixing your bread toaster or changing the broken part in your lawnmower.

A process of returning a product to good working condition by replacing or repairing major components that are faulty or close to failure, and making ‘cosmetic’ changes to update the appearance of a product, such as cleaning, changing the fabric, painting or refinishing. Any subsequent warranty is generally less than issued for a new or remanufactured product, but the warranty is likely to cover the whole product (unlike repair). Accordingly, the performance may be less than as-new.

Recycle

The first thing you need to remember when recycling is to check with your local city or municipality. Countries and even local municipalities tend to have completely different recycling policies. Not every waste management facility is able to recycle all types of waste. It depends on how your local waste management facility and recycling facilities are going about the recycling process. In some cases the compostable cup for your ice cream can be recycled, in many others, it can not. And of course, you want to get it right. So check, check, double-check the rules and requirements of your area. 

In the recycling process, a product is brought back to its raw materials. A plastic bottle will turn into plastic recyclates, little marbles made out of one specific type of plastic. A cotton shirt will be turned back into yarn. These materials can then be used and remade into new products. The cleaner the recyclable product is the better it can be recycled into raw materials. A 100% cotton shirt is easier to recycle than a shirt made of 80% cotton and 20% synthetic fibres. 

Not all plastic, paper and glass products are produced in the same way or even have a similar negative impact on the planet. Nor is paper always better than plastic or plastic better than glass. It’s all in the details and nuances. This can indeed feel overwhelming. Luckily there are a couple of rules of thumb that can help you out. 

Recycled vs Recyclable 

Now let’s dive into the difference between recycled and recyclable. A difference many people don’t even know exists. If a product or material is partly or completely made from recycled products, it means it was partly or fully recycled. If a material or product is recyclable it means that the product can be recycled at the end of life, it doesn’t mean it is made from recycled materials, to begin with. The most sustainable situation would be when a product or material is both recycled and recyclable. 

Zero Waste

Zero Waste. Sounds good right? It’s a term that is gaining momentum in the sustainable living movement. Unfortunately living completely zero-waste is still almost impossible within the current consumer landscape. But you can get pretty far and every bit of waste saved matters. Zero waste is a design and lifestyle principle that came about in the 21st century. Waste is a modern invention and the concept would have seemed strange to the people wandering around 3000 years ago, as they didn’t really produce waste in the way we do nowadays. Zero-waste goes beyond recycling and takes a holistic approach to the whole system of producing and disposing of products, building materials and packaging. The zero-waste principle aims to minimize production and maximizes the r’s. The end of life stages; reuse, repair, recycled etc. are considered in the production phase of the process. 

Up-cycling

Upcycling is the process of converting (raw) materials or products into new materials with a higher quality of value and increased functionality. Think for example about turning glass wine bottles into stylish legs for your coffee table. Or bend old spoons into coat hooks. 

Down-cycling

Down-cycling is the process of transforming materials into new materials and/or products of lesser quality and reduced functionality. Think about a mixture of hard to recycle plastic types that are mixed into a hybrid plastic of lesser quality and pressed into a park bench.

Rules of thumb for choosing products with the lowest environmental footprint 

Clean shopping remains a complex decision-making process with many factors so we can’t guarantee that these rules will give you the smallest footprint 100% of the time. But overall these rules can help you to make better decisions whilst shopping. 

  • It may sound a bit silly but not buying something is always the most sustainable option. 
  • Swap from animal to plant-based protein. 
  • Buy most of your products at the outside circle of your grocery. Almost all grocery stores display their fresh products on the outer circle and the processed foods in the middle. The closer a product is to its original fresh form the less energy went into processing the raw materials into a new product. In other words, try to stick to “whole” food products.
  • Try to buy as close to the source as possible; right from the farmer, farmer markets, artisan bakeries etc. 
  • Cans over glass jars. 
    • They are lighter in transportation and therefore have a lower co2 footprint and tin is one of the easiest materials to collect and recycle. 
  • Buy bulk. Especially dry goods are better bought in bulk. You will save on both transportation emissions and packaging. 

Like you might have noticed all the terms we just discussed can be applied to both your personal life as in design and business. Whether you are in need of a couch or a new business proposition, keep the six r’s in mind.

And when you need help integrating the six r’s into your business and supply chains, don’t forget to give us a call.

Happy Sprinting

Minou & Pamela

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