As I have said in several presentations, if the only thing you care about is keeping stuff out of the landfill, littering works as well as recycling or any other sustainable resource management activity. At some point, we need to look beyond keeping stuff out of the landfill and really look at the impact of what we are doing. What are the financial impacts of your alternatives? What are the environmental impacts or the social impacts?
Lets Go Back
Many of us know the EPA’s solid waste hierarchy that was introduced in their 1989 “The Solid Waste Dilemma: An Agenda for Action” document. Some of you who grew up in the shadows of that era were taught recycling in school. As such, some of you can recite that “reuse is better than recycling” just as well as you can recite you multiplication tables and can tell me that “6 x 8 = 48.” But, just as many of us who definitively “know” that 6×8=48 might be a bit fuzzier when it comes to explaining why, I think so too are some who merely memorized the solid waste hierarchy. 1989 is just long enough ago to some of you reading this that I might as well be talking about the Van Buren administration. So for those of you learned the facts without learning the whys, let me back up a step, and help explain why.
Recyclables Are Basically Scrap
Whatever we call it, “recycling,” “resource conservation” or “zero waste,” recycling is essentially scrap. When you are talking about selling recyclables, you are selling products for their scrap value as an input to manufacture new products. That involves a significant amount of grinding, melting, pulping, pelletizing, and/or other processing to get materials into a form that can be used in manufacturing. That means that for many materials, when you are talking about recycling/scrap value, you are talking about small margins, often single digit cents per pound.
When you are reusing an item, you don’t have to process it into a form that can be used in manufacturing. You are reusing it primarily in its current form. That saves a lot of processing the various forms of which are not inexpensive industrial practices (either financially or in terms of environmental impact).
It helps to keep that in mind when you think about the financial value of reuse. Say you have some old 2lb metal trinket from your grandparent’s attic. If metal scrap is selling for 8 cents per lb, that trinket is worth 16 cents on the recycling market. Selling that trinket at a tag sale/garage sale/yard sale/flea market/bazaar (please let me know if I missed a name for this in your area) for merely a quarter has gotten you 150% of the scrap value of that trinket. That’s a financial transaction that most people and businesses would at least have to consider.
Timing is Everything
However, as beneficial as the reuse marketplace can be, it can also be tricky. Timing can be everything. For example, de-construction is the reuse of furnishings and building supplies from a building. It can be a valuable part of a demolition or renovation project. However, if you don’t time deconstruction right, any value that you gain from reuse can be more than offset by the cost of construction delays.
Timing can also be critical when it comes to maximizing the value of reuse items. There is a term that I heard once at a conference that I love called “trailing-edge technology.” The key to reuse is sometimes not to hold onto an item too long. If you miss your window of opportunity to sell a used item into the reuse market when it has “trailing-edge-technology” value, you might be relegated to selling certain items for scrap or holding onto them so long that they might become antiques (which given the logistical cost of storage is not a viable option for most businesses or institutions).
Too often, we talk about various forms of diversion or sustainable resource management as if they all have the same value. But what is the impact of your decisions and options? If all you are doing is not throwing something directly into the landfill, what makes your program better than littering?