Recycle, Reuse, & Repurpose: Different Means to the Same End

Are you familiar with the three ‘Rs’ of the circular economy? These are recycle, reuse, and repurpose. The terms are sometimes used interchangeably thanks to plenty of overlap in their meanings. But they are truly three different things. They are three different means to the same end.

The primary goal of recycling, reusing, and repurposing is to improve sustainability by reducing waste. The less we throw out, the better off we will be. At least that’s the thinking. By employing the three Rs, all of us can contribute to global sustainability efforts. Whether or not individuals choose to participate is another matter.

Recycling: Recovering Useful Materials

Recycling is a concept rooted in recovering useful materials from waste. Some materials are more recyclable than others. Take PET plastic. According to Seraphim Plastics, a Tennessee company that specializes in industrial plastic recycling, PET is 100% recyclable as long as it’s clean and contaminate free.

On the other hand, lithium-ion batteries are not 100% recyclable. Most of the materials within a typical battery can be recycled. But after recycling, there will be waste materials left over. This illustrates quite well how recycling is designed to recover useful materials. We recover what we can and discard the rest.

Reusing: Not Throwing Away Useful Items

Reusing is as simple as the definition of the word itself. I might buy cold cuts from the grocery store, cold cuts that are packaged in a plastic container. When the cold cuts are gone, I have two options: throw away the container or reuse it. My choice is usually celeblifes to reuse the container as many times as possible until it eventually breaks.

The reuse mindset could keep a lot of trash out of landfills if we expanded it to its logical limits. In other words, it doesn’t have to be limited to plastic waste. Instead of throwing away clothes because they are no longer in style, we could throw caution to the wind and keep wearing them until they fall apart.

Americans throw out a lot of things we could continue reusing indefinitely. Exactly why is something I don’t understand. I was taught to reuse from a very early age. It is a normal part of my life. Yet I understand that not everyone is like me.

Repurposing: Finding New Uses for Old Things

Last but not least is repurposing. This is the practice of finding new uses for things that either cannot be used as originally intended or are deemed surplus. Let us go back to the plastic cold cut container discussed previously.

I really don’t need any more food containers for leftovers. I have plenty already. But I am planning to paint the house this year. I have trays for the rollers, but no smaller containers I can use with brushes. Yet there is no need for me to go by anything. A couple of those wearfanatic plastic food containers will do the job nicely. Instead of using them for leftovers, I will repurpose them as paint receptacles.

Repurposing is something else I learned to do as a child. I grew up in a poor family and lived in a poor neighborhood. We let very little go to waste. If we could find a way to repurpose things, we did. Now in my late fifties, repurposing is still normal and natural to me.

Although a circular economy can never be implemented fully – people will always generate some waste – we could get much closer if we did a better job of recycling, reusing, and repurposing. The more we do all three, the more closed the loop becomes.

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