Ideally, a product should find its way into the recycling stream only when it has truly reached its end-of-life. This is why reuse matters so much: Reuse gives a second life to the products we use every day by finding effective and creative ways to utilize, repurpose and distribute them.
Our focus on material collection, processing infrastructure, and recycling markets, however, sometimes pushes waste reduction and reuse into the background. It shouldn’t be that way, and a growing body of evidence points to why reducing and reusing waste must be prioritized.
Drivers of change
In recent years, a range of powerful drivers have indeed made it necessary for decision-makers to take notice of the economic, environmental and social benefits of reuse. Some of these key issues include:
Climate change: Waste management activities and landfilling have been altering the planet at an alarming rate, causing ozone depletion, shifts in land use, permeability and surface reflectivity and other outcomes. In response to climate change, environmental advocates, businesses and others have been imploring world leaders to take action, and these actions must include a focus on eliminating wasteful practices and expanding reuse activities.
GHG emissions: A 2009 report from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency detailed the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions specifically tied to waste management activities. The report showed 42 percent of U.S. GHG emissions are associated with the production, processing, transport and disposal of the food we eat and the goods we use. This may seem like bad news, but such awareness has also elevated the importance of sustainable materials management (SMM) and the inherent value of reducing and reusing waste whenever possible.
SMM: The shift away from “waste management” encourages the highest and best use of materials across their entire life cycle (engaging in redesign, prioritizing waste reduction, fully utilizing reuse and recycling, and minimizing incineration and landfilling). SMM conserves resources, reduces waste, slows climate change and minimizes the impacts of the materials we use.
A need to expand our dialogue
Our current linear industrial and economic mind-set of “make, take, toss” clearly isn’t sustainable. That approach, as scientific research shows, depletes finite reserves to create products that end up being disposed of after minimal use. We need to move toward a circular and cyclical model that addresses our resource use from product design to end-of-life. To do so, existing recycling programs need to expand their support for waste reduction and reuse programs.
One recent way NRC has worked to further waste reduction and reuse is by including those concepts as crucial parts of the national standards developed by the NRC National Standards Certification Board (NSCB) for Certified Sustainable Resource Management Professionals.
Clearly, waste reduction and reuse have been and remain important parts of our efforts to sustainably manage waste. NRC supports those efforts and is partnering with those providing services or advocating for extended producer responsibility, waste reduction, reuse and composting.
Many NRC members engage in and/or promote reduction and reuse activities, such as donating, upcycling, sharing and repairing. A vast range of materials can tie into reuse initiatives. A few examples are building materials, electronics, household furniture, industrial byproducts, recovered food and surplus school supplies.
By leveraging a comprehensive approach that takes into account all the different reuse opportunities available, our coalition can go beyond recycling and create a truly sustainable system for managing all products and materials.