During the energy and waste crises of the 1970’s and 80’s, recycling became the watchword. Schoolchildren gathered up aluminum cans by the thousands, sending them for recycling in a process that is much more energy-efficient than starting with raw aluminum. The resulting cuts in consumption of raw materials, energy used in production of finished goods, and transport to markets translated to a major ecological boost.
But in time, consumers and environmentalists began to realize that an even better option was to reuse instead of recycling, when it was possible. The all-day water-sipping co-worker stopped using recyclable bottles of water and changed to a washable, reusable container that was filled with filtered tap water. Home decorators, penny-pinching farmers, and many others set about finding ways to gather would-be trash and put it in service as something else.
Of course, either strategy is great. But because reuse represents a new way of thinking for many consumers, it can take a little training and orientation to get them going. So here are some tips on what situations might be best for applying this method.
The cellophane that contained your morning package of trail mix was just sturdy enough to last until you had your snack, after which it’s not good for much. Obviously that material will be hard to reuse. But the loading dock at that warehouse up the street is probably covered with used pallets, wood shipping crates, and heavy-gauge cardboard. The firms that first secured their goods with those materials often have no desire to collect and reuse them; it’s cheaper simply to discard them. But when you’re dealing with an item with so much usable life left, it’s wasteful not to drop by and ask someone if you can help yourself to the unwanted pieces. You’d be amazed what people are creating with old pallets.
As we discussed above, there’s no need for a daily trashing of a can or bottle, or even a recycling of one. Bottled water became popular for its flavor and convenience, but in time many companies developed faucet filters that provided the same enhanced taste as bottled water, without the waste of plastic bottles and cardboard trays shrink-wrapped with more plastic. It’s a better solution for the neighborhood jogger, the eco-minded student, or the hard-charging dieter. A tiny drop of detergent and a dab of water provide them with a germ-free, better-insulated vessel that will last for years.
We’re not talking about some environmental cult here. What we’re talking about is maximizing the amount of an item’s usable life that it is actually used. There’s a widespread trend of reusing old building materials today. Windows from demolished building–glass intact or broken–are being made into unique crafts. Scrap lumber can be used to border landscaping until the soil reclaims it. And used tires have been reimagined as everything from mulch to padding for chains on shipping containers. These are all items that are no longer of valuable in their original incarnation but can serve a purpose for a few more years instead of being wasted.
The point is this: Think of something not as what it was made for, but for what it could become. The result will be a greener, less wasteful outcome.