Reuse Systems Lay the Foundation for a More Resilient Tomorrow

Small plants growing in egg carton box in black soil. Reuse concept.

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Traditional waste disposal methods, like landfills and incinerators, worsen the climate crisis and public health. Reuse is the solution we need. But consumers can’t create the systems change on their own. Implementing new laws and regulations that require corporations to meet reuse standards will play a vital role in the transition to a Zero Waste future.

Traditional Waste Disposal Methods are Failing Us

Long before the terms “global warming” and “climate change” gained prominence in news outlets, pivotal events, like the formation of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and congressional testimony from NASA scientist James Hansen, put a spotlight on the detrimental effects of human activity and disposable wastes on the climate. This sparked an urgent need for change.

But government leaders and policymakers have fallen short in implementing programs and policies to adequately address our waste and climate crisis. Landfills and incinerators are not sustainable solutions to managing waste. Both produce and emit toxic chemicals that harm our environment and climate. They have adverse effects on communities, their health, and create a demand for more single-use waste. Both options do more harm than good. But if we implement the right solutions, we can stop waste before it even starts.

Reducing Waste Through Reuse

A common misconception is that reusing and recycling are synonymous, but they are fundamentally different processes. While recycling is more widely recognized, it has many faults – especially when it comes to plastic. Recycling involves a number of steps: Collecting, sorting, processing materials into new products, packaging those products, and distributing them. While recycling helps to conserve raw materials, it does not mitigate the toxic gases and pollution emitted when reprocessing items into something new.

Reuse, on the other hand, aims to keep items in operation for as long as possible, rather than recycling or disposing of them after a single use. When we take a look at what our waste consists of, we start to notice that the majority of it can be reused.

The reuse discussion often centers on how we, as consumers, can make an impact in our own lives. And to some degree, this is true. A little creative thinking can go a long way. We can use old toothbrushes for cleaning, mesh produce bags for kitchen scrubbers or storage, and old clothes for cleaning rags. And when reusing items yourself is not feasible, donating them offers a meaningful way to give it a second life.

But it’s crucial to recognize that the responsibility of reuse should not rest solely on consumers. Corporations play an equally vital role. Studies indicate that integrating reuse into corporate ethics and operations yields significant benefits for both the company and the environment. After all, reuse is the second most effective way to reduce waste, conserve resources, and free up space in landfills and incinerators – second only to not creating waste in the first place. By opting for reuse, we significantly reduce our carbon footprint and conserve valuable resources that would have been used to create disposable alternatives.

Dry food refill station.
Photo: via Shutterstock

Integrating Reuse Systems into Corporate Operations

Reuse systems are nothing new. Just think of the milkman! In the early 19th century, dairy companies had glass containers that they would fill with milk. The milkman would then go door-to-door delivering fresh-filled containers. At the same time, he would collect any empty glass bottles from the previous milk delivery to be refilled. It’s time for corporations to re-embrace this reuse model – but on a much larger scale.

While some corporations have good intentions and want to demonstrate a commitment to environmental sustainability, most won’t make these changes on their own. Why? Because of money. Changing gears and investing in new systems that support reusable containers and packaging may cost more up front than single-use packaging. But the truth is that corporations can save significantly through reuse initiatives. Reuse helps minimize expenses associated with sourcing new materials, manufacturing, and waste disposal. Utilizing resources efficiently and reducing reliance on virgin materials means that corporations can streamline their operations while simultaneously reducing their environmental footprint – further driving business growth and profitability.

So how do we change corporate behavior if they’re not willing to make these changes on their own? We implement laws and regulations that propel reuse. Many European countries are ahead of the United States on this front, especially when it comes to wine and beer bottle refill. We can learn a lot from these countries. But what it really comes down to is ensuring that these laws and regulations have enforceable standards with clear definitions.

The Transformative Impact of Reuse on Society

When we require corporations to change their ways, it also creates a new norm for consumers. Take the 2022 bag ban in New Jersey. By banning single-use plastic bags at grocery stores, restaurants, and retail shops, consumers started to shop with reusable bags. In fact, since New Jersey’s ban went into effect, 5.5 billion single-use plastic bags have been eliminated – that’s 594 bags saved per person. Meaning less plastic production, less waste, a healthier climate, and healthier communities.

But less waste and a healthier climate aren’t the only benefits of reuse systems. For many disadvantaged communities, reuse may significantly reduce their cost of living. The expenses associated with waste retrieval in cities and towns often translate into higher rent prices or state taxes, which can be detrimental to families. Reuse also provides an essential resource for accessing low-cost or free goods such as food, clothing, furniture, and medical supplies. It’s become a major player in addressing issues of accessibility and affordability, helping individuals meet their basic needs.

Moreover, reuse programs play a vital role in job creation – generating over 200 times as many jobs as landfills and incinerators. Recycling, on the other hand, creates only 70 times as many jobs when compared to landfills and incinerators. Even better, reuse jobs often come with training opportunities. This is a crucial investment in our society and enhances an individual’s prospects of increasing their income over time.

Through reuse, communities can strengthen their economic resilience, empower individuals with valuable skills, and build a more inclusive and sustainable society. It serves as a catalyst for positive change, addressing economic disparities, and benefiting both people and the planet.

Reuse Today, Reclaim Tomorrow

The time to act is now. The amount of waste we produce year after year must be halted as soon as possible if we’re to reverse our waste and climate crises. We can compare our current situation to a bathtub slowly filling with water – unless the faucet is completely turned off, an overflow is inevitable. After reducing, reuse stands as the only sustainable solution to disposable waste that benefits all parties.

Embracing reuse practices not only conserves valuable resources, but also mitigates environmental disasters for future generations. By recognizing the power of reuse today, we can lay the foundation for a more sustainable and resilient tomorrow, where resources are cherished, communities thrive, and the planet flourishes.

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