Why recycle what you can reuse?
August 15, 2006 2:03 PM   Subscribe

What's in the way of re-using, instead of recycling?

Rereading questions like this makes it seem like a lot of people have arrived at the concludion i have: reusing makes way more sense than recycling. It seems like we go through a lot of energy to break stuff down and reform it that is unneccesary, we could be washing stuff out and reusing it.

I'm constantly reminded of Mexico and Central American countries where Coke bottles are lined with rough edges where they runup against other bottles in the racks over time, and how many restaurants won't let you take their bottles, or at least that you'll pay more for them. Why don't we do this? Is it just the aesthetic, that we're too good for slightly-worn bottles? Are there hygiene laws preventing this (this seems unlikely to me, if you can re-use plates at a restaurant)? Are bottles (especially bigger ones, like wine) too hard to clean?

One of the biggest successes behind TerraCycle was reusing soda bottles instead of paying for new packaging. It's an aha moment that seems so obvious in retrospect. So what's in the way? I feel like I'm missing a critical understanding of the process that would have led us to choose recycling over reusing in the first place.
posted by andifsohow to Science & Nature (13 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
For the most part, glass bottles are just washed and refilled. Beer bottles especially. For other materials, their utility and sterility vary. Like, the heat to sterilize a plastic bottle of coke is enough to melt it (at least to the point of deforming). You can use a bottle of coke for plant food a lot more easily and legally than you can for human food.
posted by klangklangston at 2:08 PM on August 15, 2006


Freecycle.org.
Give your stuff away when you no longer have a use for it, ask for stuff you want that others may have finished with. Lovely.
posted by dash_slot- at 2:18 PM on August 15, 2006


remember, it's "reduce, reuse, recycle". it's phrased that way for a reason. the best thing for us to do is "reduce" our usage of resources. the next best is to "reuse", and finally, "recycle".

so why don't we reuse? i blame culture, basically. hygiene is certainly a big part of that. my trip around the world last month showed me that in thailand and egypt they reuse a LOT. but it's just not safe. besides pathogens and faulty equipment things just aren't quite up to par with our standards.

and let's be honest, a little bit about it is economics. it's far easier and cheaper (probably because of existing product channels) to just chop down a tree and turn it into paper.

earlier this year the japanese parliament moved to outlaw the reselling of certain pieces of old electronics. the move was ostensibly made to cut down on electrical fires, but who are they kidding?
posted by taumeson at 2:24 PM on August 15, 2006


This thread discusses one reason reusing soft-drink bottles fell out of favor.
posted by lekvar at 2:31 PM on August 15, 2006


You're in the US? In a rich country, reuse of expensive, intricate things might make financial sense, but the difference between cleaning old bottles and making new ones isn't big enough to make it worthwhile to US manufacturers. Also, it's easier to maintain their image when every bottle is fresh from the factory, not visibly eroded from a dozen prior uses. And spoiled American buyers probably wouldn't go for it -- "You want me to drink out of a used bottle? Eww."

In a poor country, a small cost difference can be enough. But it's not as if poor countries are reusing bottles for environmental reasons. If it were cheaper to use new ones, they, more than rich countries, would be more likely to do so.
posted by pracowity at 2:31 PM on August 15, 2006


It's a question of who pays for what. A lot of the costs of making new packaging aren't incurred by the company making the product -- they just pay for the packaging. Nor does the producer pay for disposal costs on their packaging. If the package is cheaper to buy new than to reuse, that's what they'll do -- and the reuse costs do fall on the manufacturer.

To stick with brewers, since beer bottles were mentioned and it's an area I know a bit about: To reuse bottles, you've gotta clean them inside and out, including a caustic clean to kill whatever horrible crap is in them. That's a lot of water and chemicals (water already being one of a brewer's biggest expenses). You've also gotta have some kind of mechanism for collecting the bottles after they're used -- deposits can work for that, but not perfectly. You're also going to see some breakage at every stage of the package's circulation, so you know you're going to have to buy new bottles as well. For all those reasons, it's often cheaper for the brewer to just buy all new, since you don't have to clean (just sanitize immediately before filling) and you know how many to order (rather than wondering how many you'll get back.

In addition, if you don't intend to re-use the bottle a lot, you can afford to make it a bit weaker -- meaning less glass is needed, making it cheaper. Plus, bottles (beer, wine, and lots of others) aren't standardized -- I can't put my product into your product's old package. And packaging is important; there's a bit of the aesthetic aspect that you mention, but in addtion there's the ease-of-use that screw-top bottles give you (and screw-tops don't work as well for re-using; the threads get chipped easily whey they're getting banged around). There's also the fact that every penny you don't have to spend in cleaning and collecting old packaging is a penny you can knock off the retail price. Beer bottles used to be routinely re-used, but now screw-offs are far more common, and the price is lower (though it's lower for other reasons as well).

But all that glass is going somewhere, right? Absolutely -- but the brewer isn't paying for it. He's just paying for the new bottles. It's a lot cheaper for him to buy them from the bottle-maker (who may very well be buying recycled glass, and who can amortize his costs over a number of bottle purchasers) than it would be to collect, clean, and re-use all those bottles himself -- and still have to buy new ones regularly.

Because the costs of each step are broken out between the glass maker, the beer maker, and the various other steps of the product's lifecycle, they're much lower by the time they're folded into the retail price, because each stage has a lot of volume to amortize costs over. If the maker of the product was responsible for all of the societal costs related to the product, they might make different decisions. We may use more energy by recycling than by reusing (in some cases), but energy's cheap (in the developed world, anyway) and we spread the costs over a lot of payers. And it's still better than new manufacture (especially in the case of aluminum cans, which would be extremely difficult to re-use).
posted by nickmark at 2:39 PM on August 15, 2006


You can use a bottle of coke for plant food a lot more easily and legally than you can for human food.

Although I hadn't acknowledged it, I had thought of this. It also ties into the aesthetic thing, they get more mileage out of the fact their product comes in all different bottles than they would out of standardization.

Thanks for the thorough answer, nickmark. I guess I'm wondering now what a better model, that incorporated the triple bottom line approach/societal costs, would look like.
posted by andifsohow at 2:52 PM on August 15, 2006


It wasn't hard to find plastic soda bottles in Mexico. The reusable ones are on the way out. (And for the truly poor, street drinks are served in a plastic bag with a straw, filled with a ladle from a bucket.)
posted by smackfu at 3:08 PM on August 15, 2006


I blame marketing for a lot of it. Many people think it's "icky" to buy clothes at a thrift shop, or buy a used car. They're happy to go into dept to have a cooler car, cooler clothes, etc. My town has really good tap water. Tastes great, very low chlorine, tests clean with low contaminants. Yet lots of people feel somehow safer buying bottled water because marketers are pretty good at their jobs.
posted by theora55 at 4:10 PM on August 15, 2006


Well, I reuse peanut butter, jelly, salsa, etc. glass jars instead of Tupperware, so there's something you can try. With their screw-top lids, they're better at transporting soups and other liquids than plastic containers. And when you take the lids off, they're microwave safe.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 4:49 PM on August 15, 2006


To reuse bottles, you've gotta clean them inside and out, including a caustic clean to kill whatever horrible crap is in them. That's a lot of water and chemicals (water already being one of a brewer's biggest expenses).

New bottles have to be cleaned as well (apparently this is called 'sanitized', whatever). Not as thoroughly, I'm sure, but still..

You've also gotta have some kind of mechanism for collecting the bottles after they're used -- deposits can work for that, but not perfectly.

Ontario has a 98% recovery rate on beer bottles.

You're also going to see some breakage at every stage of the package's circulation, so you know you're going to have to buy new bottles as well.

Forget breakage, if you want to increase sales you are probably going to have to increase the number of bottles in circulation..

and you know how many to order (rather than wondering how many you'll get back.

It doesn't take a statistics expert to figure out how many and when returns come in. You only need a couple of years of back history to get the scheduling perfect.

in addition there's the ease-of-use that screw-top bottles give you (and screw-tops don't work as well for re-using; the threads get chipped easily whey they're getting banged around).

Ontario beer is almost all twist-top, we still manage to reuse the bottles..

Interesting:
Canadian brewers have traditionally used refillable bottles, and in 1989, Ontario began enforcing a levy on imported beverages to promote refillable bottles. Despite being challenged during a trade dispute and attacked by the aluminum industry, this levy has remained in place. It is popular with domestic brewers for both its cost-effectiveness and its environmental benefits.
So Ontario's beer bottle reuse program is based on protectionist trade practices.. That is amazing!

It certainly is all about who pays the costs!



On a completely different topic..

I'm a little concerned about the cradle to grave notion.. It seems like it may be disguised planned obsolescence. All those 1GHz PIIIs must help depress the price of new computers at least a little, and as computing power outpaces consumer requirements that effect is only going to increase.
posted by Chuckles at 6:56 PM on August 15, 2006


I think Chuckles' comments (and the Ontario example) really point to the importance of an industry-wide approach. I agree that none of the barriers I mentioned represent reasons that bottle re-use can't be done; just reasons why it isn't. If you're the only brewer doing it, you're less willing to incur the extra costs; if it's an industry-wide practice, that's a different story. There are basically two ways to make that happen: legislation and a pro-active approach from the industry (which, as Ontario's levy underscores, may still require encouragement from policy-makers).
posted by nickmark at 7:38 AM on August 16, 2006


As our energy costs rise it's also probably worth considering the impact of moving items in a cycle versus a line. The waste I produce leaves my home in only 2 containers - trash or recycling. It's transported by two vehicles to two locations where it may or may not be further separated and subdivided before moving it elsewhere, and both those locations may be on rail lines which add an economy of scale to the movement.

Any alternate system has to consider not just the savings in initial production but the costs in labor and transport that would be added to bring items back to a bottling plant (for example) for re-use.

One of the more interesting things I recall from environmental science class was the discussion of "paper or plastic?" and how total energy cost is lower on plastic bags from the grocery if there's no re-use, vs re-use & recycle vs just recycle.
posted by phearlez at 10:27 AM on August 16, 2006


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