Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rethink

No mere slogan, it's becoming the mantra for materials management: reduce, reuse, recycle.
By Lester R. Brown
August/September 2009
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Industries around the world are gradually adating to environmental concerns by adopting the reduce, reuse, recycle concept.
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Excerpted from Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization.

"Reduce, Reuse, Recycle" isn't just a set of buzzwords or empty rhetoric. There is vast worldwide potential for reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by reducing our use of materials. We can begin with the major metals — steel, aluminum, and copper — and continue onto the recycling and composting of most household garbage. The idea applies to designing cars, appliances, and other products so they can be easily disassembled for reuse or recycling. 

Germany and Japan are requiring that products such as automobiles, household appliances, and office equipment be designed for easy disassembly and recycling. In May 1998, the Japanese legislature enacted a tough appliance recycling law that prohibits discarding household appliances such as washing machines, TVs, or air conditioners. Consumers bear the cost of disassembling appliances in the form of a fee to recycling firms, so there is strong pressure to design appliances so that they can be more efficiently disassembled.

Closely related to this concept is that of remanufacturing. Caterpillar has emerged as a leader within the heavy industry sector. At a plant in Corinth, Miss., the company recycles some 17 truckloads of diesel engines a day. These engines are disassembled by hand by workers who do not throw away a single bolt or screw. Once the engine is disassembled, it is reassembled with all worn parts repaired. The resulting engine is as good as new. Caterpillar’s engine remanufacturing division is racking up $1 billion a year in sales and growing at 15 percent annually, contributing impressively to the company’s bottom line.

Another emerging industry is airliner recycling. Boeing and Airbus are currently vying to see which company can dismantle jetliners most efficiently. The goal is to recycle 90 percent of the plane. With more than 3,000 airliners already put out to pasture and many more to come — this retired fleet has become the equivalent of an aluminum mine.

With personal computers becoming obsolete every few years as technology advances, European information technology firms are getting into electronics recycling. Because European law requires that manufacturers pay for the collection, disassembly, and recycling of toxic materials in electronic equipment, manufacturers have begun to focus on how to disassemble everything from computers to cell phones. Nokia, for example, has designed a cell phone that will virtually disassemble itself.

Patagonia, an outdoor gear retailer, has launched a clothing recycling program for its polyester fiber garments. In fact, Patagonia is now recycling not only the polyester garments it sells, but also those sold by its competitors. A garment made from recycled polyester is indistinguishable from one that contains the initial polyester made from petroleum, and Patagonia estimates that it uses less than one-fourth as much energy. With this success behind it, Patagonia is beginning to work on nylon garments and plans to recycle its cotton T-shirts.

Blast From the Past: Clean and Reuse Materials to Lessen Landfill Strain

Other recent measures encourage the reuse of products such as beverage containers. Finland, for example, has banned the use of one-way soft drink containers. Canada’s Prince Edward Island has adopted a similar ban on all nonrefillable beverage containers. In both cases, the result has been a sharply reduced flow of garbage to landfills.

A refillable glass bottle requires only about 10 percent as much energy per use as a recycled aluminum can. Cleaning, sterilizing and re-labeling a used bottle requires little energy compared with recycling cans made from aluminum, which has a melting point of 660 degrees Celsius (1,220 degrees Fahrenheit). Banning nonrefillables is a quintuple-win option — cutting material use, greenhouse gas emissions, air pollution, water pollution, and garbage flow to landfills. There are also substantial fuel savings with these recycled products, because the refillable containers can be back-hauled to the original bottling plants or breweries for refilling.

Eliminate Wasteful, Non-Essential Industries

Another increasingly attractive option for cutting CO2 emissions is to discourage energy-intensive but nonessential industries. The gold and bottled water industries are prime examples. The annual global production of 2,500 tons of gold requires the processing of 500 million tons of ore. That’s more than one-third the amount of virgin ore used to produce steel each year. One ton of steel requires the processing of 2 tons of ore. In stark contrast, for 1 ton of gold, the figure is 200,000 tons of ore.

From a climate point of view, it is difficult to justify bottling water (often tap water to begin with), hauling it long distances and selling it for outlandish prices. Clever marketing, designed to undermine public confidence in the safety and quality of municipal water supplies, has convinced many consumers that bottled water is safer and healthier than what they can get from their faucets. However, in the United States and Europe, there are tougher standards regulating the quality of tap water than that of bottled water.

Manufacturing the nearly 28 billion plastic bottles used to package water in the United States alone requires 17 million barrels of oil. Include the energy needed for hauling 1 billion bottles of water every two weeks from bottling plants to supermarkets or convenience stores, plus the energy needed for refrigeration, and the barrels of oil used per year by the U.S. bottled water industry number roughly 50 million.

Raising energy efficiency to off-set projected growth in energy demand is essential to cutting net CO2 emissions 80 percent by 2020, thus halting the rise in atmospheric CO2 and helping keep future temperature rise to a minimum. Reducing materials use through the measures outlined here will help us attain this goal, moving the world closer to temperature stability.


Lester R. Brown is President of Earth Policy Institute and author of Full Planet, Empty Plates. He is recognized worldwide for his global perspective on environmental issues and for his development of Plan B, a plan to save civilization through stabilizing population, cutting carbon emissions, and restoring the earth’s natural support systems. Find him on .


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