Friday, March 11, 2016

Well-written Piece on Reuse vs. Recycling

Check out this recent post by Max Liboiron over on Discard Studies: "The Politics of Recycling vs. Reuse."

Liboiron states: "Recycling is an industrial process that collects used or abandoned materials, and smashes, melts, shreds or otherwise transforms them into their constituent raw materials. Recycling can reduce waste, the need for virgin materials, energy consumption, air pollution, and landfill leachates, though this occurs in varying degrees for different processes. But recycling is not environmentally benign. First, recycling institutionalizes disposables and single-use items by treating them after they have been created, meaning more single-use and disposable items are guaranteed to be made and tossed in the future. Make no mistake: recycling is a form of disposal. Secondly, as an industrial process, it necessitates expenditures of energy and virgin materials, and produces pollutants, greenhouse gases and waste...Thirdly, recycling is not a closed-loop system. Even if we concentrate on the 6-30% of recyclables in the US that are actually captured in the recycling stream, and ignore the two-thirds of captured recyclables that are dumped in landfills when market prices for recyclables plummet or bails are contaminated, recycling often creates products that are 'down-cycled.' Down-cycled products are not as robust as their predecessors, nor are such products usually recyclable themselves (polyurethane plastics, for example, are often turned into asphalt or other end-of-the-line objects)...Reuse, on the other hand, is an act that challenges the institutionalization of easy disposal and the politics of industry-supported 'environmentalism' and consumption."

Amen to all of this. It's not that recycling is a bad thing--it's a good thing, and we should increase the amount of materials that we collect and actually recycle. But it can't be the ONLY thing, and it surely shouldn't be the preferred thing. Back when I was little, you were taught (or at least I was, by the things which impacted me) that you can't just put all materials out to the curb in your trash bin because there really is no "AWAY." Recycling has in some ways become the new "away" for us--if we can put it in a blue bin, we feel we've done our duty, and have made the best choice we can for the greater good. But that's not really true, and that belief lulls us into complacency. Reuse is always a better choice. Designing products to last and to be able to be repaired and reused for as long as possible is key. Things should only be recycled for the reclamation of raw materials when their utility in their current form has been exhausted.

Hierarchy of waste Management
Even the US EPA's Waste Management Hierarchy, which clearly shows source reduction and reuse as the most preferred actions, kinda helps perpetuate incorrect thinking. Anything below that top tier really is a form of disposal, as Liboiron has pointed out. Different forms of disposal are better than others. The "disposal" referred to in the diagram above is really landfilling--the equivalent of saying, "we give up, we made this stuff, but don't know what the heck to do with it, so we're just gonna bury it over here and pretend it never happened."

If you're recycling, that's wonderful! It means you're being thoughtful about how to responsibly dispose of the items you use. But don't stop there--think about why you're disposing of so many things in the first place. Think about whether you could change your behavior to avoid disposing of things. Let the manufacturers of products you like know that you'd like those products to be more durable, easy to repair, and able to be upgraded over time so that even when you don't have a use for them any more, someone else might. If you can begin to think this way, you'll really be part of a cultural change.

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