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Reuse, refurbishment and recycling: a circular economy

In this video, Dr. Nathan B. English will talk to us about how we can reuse, recycle and refurbish to help reduce our environmental footprint.
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Hello, and this is the last video in the beginner’s guide to environmental science. And look, it’s appropriate that we’re ending on an upbeat note and we’re going to talk about waste processing in a really positive sense. And that’s through the reuse, refurbishment, and recycling of waste, and it includes reduction as well. And at the very end, we’ll talk about what a circular economy is and what it might mean for the future of waste generation and treatment. So the current strategies for waste management are shown here and really, it starts at the top of this pyramid. The most favored option is just to prevent the waste from being generated in the first place.
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And this is really that reduce part of reduce, reuse, recycle, refurbish. There’s sort of four Rs, but we’ll go through them here. But prevention and minimization of waste are really the most favored options. If you can find a way to make a widget without making as much waste, that’s great. And generally, for businesses and manufacturers, it ends up being positive in their net balance so that they’re making a little bit more money instead of spending that money on something that they don’t need, which ends up being waste later on. So prevention and minimization are the really most favored options. Somewhere between that and just throwing it in the tip is reuse. So reusing objects and products, if we can.
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Refurbishing those objects, if we can. So maybe fixing them, replacing the battery. For a bicycle, you might fill the tires and give it a good tuneup. If we can’t reuse or refurbish the object, then what we can do is we can recycle it, which is more about using the raw materials from that product in a new product. So recycling is the destruction of that object, but the keeping of the raw materials for use in producing new products. And then there’s energy recovery as well. So if we can’t recycle those materials, maybe we can combust or use those materials to generate energy. And a lot of this might be around food waste.
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If we can get all our food waste into one bin, we might be able to produce some methane from it. And then we can use that methane to generate electricity. So that’s energy recovery. And finally, there’s just pure disposal. That’s the least favored option because disposal, you don’t get anything back. You’re just throwing that waste in the landfill, or you’re releasing that waste into a water stream. And you’re not getting anything more useful from it. And it’s becoming an environmental problem if too much is being disposed of in the environment. So this is, you can think of this as sort of the most favored options and then the least favored options.
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And I want to give you just a couple of examples of these options. And the first one I think is a really lovely example. It’s from the United States and it’s from a package shipping company called United Parcel Service or UPS. And they found out that, you know, the traffic in the United States, you drive on the right side of the road in the United States. It’s not the correct side, but the actual right side versus the left side. And in the US you can turn right on a red light. You don’t have to wait for the light to turn green.
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So if you’re taking just right-hand turns, you can actually move pretty quickly through traffic and streets and the like. Whereas if you’re having to take left-hand turns, you have to wait, you have to yield to the oncoming traffic, you have to wait for the green arrow and you end up idling your vehicle a lot longer than if you were just taking right-hand turns the whole time. And so UPS programmed their mapping and delivery software to avoid left-hand turns whenever possible. (laughs) It’s a simple thing. So basically UPS drivers just take right-hand turns whenever they can.
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And so they may even end up driving around a block in order to go left, but they end up saving time in the long run. And in the long run, they prevented the use of 10 million gallons of fuel a year, which saved 100,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions a year. Remember back to your carbon dioxide emissions from your vehicles. And it ended up being that drivers would drive six to eight fewer miles driven per route. And it also increased the productivity of drivers because they could deliver more packages in the same amount of time.
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And so this idea that just by simply avoiding left-hand turns and only taking right-hand turns is the equivalent of taking 21,000 cars off the road. I love this because it sums up what we’ve been doing in environmental science through this course. It’s the application of some simple ideas, and it’s a solution where essentially everybody wins. And you can estimate the impact of it using quantitative data. And it’s really a lovely example of a solution to an environmental problem. And I think I really like this example. And I think it’s one of the best examples of reducing a waste stream instead of just trying to recycle or reuse it.
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Instead, let’s not generate the waste in the first place and they’ve improved their bottom line by doing it. So it’s sort of a win-win-win. It’s one of those rare win-win-wins. Now, the other example is reuse and recycling. And actually, sorry, we’re not reusing the cabbage from last week. This is recycling. And home composting and mulching is really a great example of taking a waste product, taking the raw materials from a waste product, processing them in a way so that they’re useful again. And so we’re taking all those nutrients and carbohydrates and vitamins and minerals that are available in that plant and food material.
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We’re putting it a compost bin, waiting a little while, adding some worms, some water, keeping it moist. And then in a couple of months, it’s available to use again as an organic substrate and fertilizer for our vegetable gardens or for a flower garden or wherever you want to use it. So we’re not throwing that material in the landfill or in our waste bins outside our house. We’re reusing that material onsite. We’re recycling it onsite to grow more food. And I think it’s a really good example of recycling, home composting, home mulching. And this happens with the green waste as well. And I showed you the example from my tour of garbage, where my green waste goes to the tip.
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They take all that green waste. They turn it into a mulch. And then occasionally I go back to the tip and I buy mulch from them and I bring it back home. And probably somewhere in that mulch is a piece of my old palm tree, which I hate palm trees but you guys know that by now. Reuse, refurbishment and recycling is where you use items again. And look, the op shop, which is what we call the secondhand store in Australia. The op shop is a great example of this, where we use, reuse items. And the op shops make a business out of this.
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You know, you donate your old items that you don’t want any more and they take the ones that are still usable. They put them on the shelf with a small price tag and they’re available to be reused. And so you’ve got shirts and outfits from the 1970s being reused at parties in 2021. So every item, if it can be reused, every item should be reused and it can be reused in new and interesting ways. I’ve been to a couple of 1970s parties. You don’t just have to get into op shops. There are ways to rent and borrow items instead of buying them. A library is a great example of how we reduce a waste stream, right?
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We don’t have to publish new books or we don’t have to actually print new books, they’re available there at the library. And you can go and check them out and return them when you’re done. Bring your own coffee cup to coffee shops, buy rechargeable batteries, this is a big one, because not only are you reducing a waste stream, you’re reducing a hazardous waste stream. So rechargeable batteries are a great idea if you can afford them and they’re available to you. Make double-sided copies or man, just read a PDF. And use cloth napkins instead of paper ones. At home, I use cloth hand towels, cloth napkins.
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Wherever you can avoid using paper towels, yeah, you’re going to be way better off ‘cause you’re just using items again. So reuse, refurbishment, this goes for cars. It goes for a whole host of things.
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What are the impacts of reuse and refurbishment and recycling on waste stream? So in Australia and I’m using Australia as an example, look, it reduces our dependence on space for tips, landfills, reduces the need for incineration. It reduces the need to mine raw materials and the environmental impact that has. Reduce of the impact for energy and greenhouse gas emissions. That energy one is a big one. Aluminum takes a huge amount of electricity to actually mine from the ground and turn into an ore. It takes an order of magnitude, less electricity to recycle an aluminum can.
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And so aluminum, aluminum, however you want to say it, is a really important one to recycle because it’s so energetic. So energetically costly to get it out of the ground. And of course that energy produces greenhouse gas emissions. So by recycling aluminum and other materials, you’re not only reducing the amount of energy required to get those materials out of the ground, you’re reducing the greenhouse gas emissions required to get those materials out of the ground. All three steps are required. In Australia, we used to generate about 22.7 metric tons or sorry, a million tons of waste. About 21.2 tons of that, million tons went to the landfill and only 1.5 million tons was recycled.
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Now look, the population has grown in the last 20 years, and now we generate 54.5 million tons, twice as much waste. However, we’re sending roughly the same amount to the landfill because we’re recycling 58% of that waste.
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So it has a huge impact on our waste generation and the environmental impact of human populations in Australia. And I just can’t stress enough. I think this is a really important graphic and quantification of the impact of recycling. If you think your recycling doesn’t matter, look again, it really does. And if your city or council or local government doesn’t have a recycling program, push for it because it’s a really important way to have a quantitative impact on our environmental impact.
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Look, why doesn’t everywhere recycle? If it’s so great, why don’t we recycle, reuse, refurbish all the time? And that’s because of a couple of things. And look, I’ve listed them here and it’s basically people don’t want to buy secondhand, right? You don’t want to wear somebody’s old shirts. You won’t find underwear sold at the op shop, right? Nobody recycles or nobody reuses their old underwear. Look, recycled materials currently only, you can only recycle materials into lower grade stock material, and that’s because of contamination issues. This is part of streaming your waste. You know, putting all the type three plastics together and all the type seven plastics together.
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But oftentimes because they’re mixed, we can’t actually create high grade stock material ‘cause even times those plastics will have food, food material still left on them, they’ll have impurities. And so you can really typically only make lower grade stock material with recycled products. Not necessarily true for the metals, but certainly for the plastics. That is the case. Look, there’s limits to the extent and rates of recycling for different materials and products and in different localities. And I find oftentimes that different places have different rules around recycling. And because there are so many different waste streams, people lose track, they get confused and they lose heart.
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So I think one of the solutions to improving recycling is clear communication about what is and what isn’t recyclable, and what you mix together and what you don’t mix together. And as we become more uniform in the way we recycle materials, I think it will become easier to recycle materials because everybody sort of knows what’s going on and it’ll be sort of common across the board. It’s also oftentimes not economically viable to recycle materials as the cost of collection, sorting, processing is greater than the market value of those recycled materials. And this is part of building sort of the supply and demand of the recycling market. You can’t just recycle materials.
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You’ve got to have a market for those recycled materials. Okay, for aluminum, it’s really easy because it’s so expensive to mine aluminum. It’s almost always economically viable to recycle aluminum. But for plastics and the like, it’s still cheaper to make plastics from crude oil. And so there’s a lot of the economies around recycling. And then you start to get into government subsidies and things like that. And you can start to think about those ideas. So the analysis of the cost of recycling typically doesn’t include some of the more holistic costings, right? Those environmental footprints, those hidden ecosystem services that we lose when we don’t recycle and instead we’re wasting.
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And then the low consumption of recycled products keeps causing the prices of those products relatively high and the economic incentives low. Look, whenever I go to the store, I try to buy recycled paper towels. When I buy them, I try to buy recycled, products made from recycled materials when I can, because I want to really encourage that demand side of the recycled materials market.
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One example of this is pay-as-you-throw or polluter pays, user pays approach. And these are bottle deposit laws with the greatest example of these, a bottle refund, where you buy a drink in a plastic or aluminum can, and you pay the cost of that drink, but you also pay an extra five cents or 10 cents on top of that. And when you take that empty can or container or bottle back to the store, you get five cents back. They’re profoundly successful. And I’ll show you a graphic here from recycling rate of beverage containers in percent versus the deposit amount. And I’m from Oregon where we’ve had a five cent bottle deposit law since I was a kid.
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And you get an 85% recycle rate for beverage containers. And look, this is going to be as simple as the kids in the house. Like when I was a kid, I used to love the weekends because I’d collect all of my mom’s cans. She used to drink Diet Coke like mad. I’d get all the Diet Coke cans. And my brother and I we’d go to the grocery store. We’d bring a giant shopping cart home. We’d fill it with all the cans from the house from the week or the couple of weeks. And we’d have a whole grocery cart full of cans. And we push it seven blocks to the local grocery store where we could recycle those cans.
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We get five cents a can and oh my God, we got like $15. And it was great. We’d take that money. We’d go across the street to the local nickel arcade where we’d spend all that money on video games for the rest of the afternoon. But that’s one of these, that’s just one reason why these bottle deposit laws are so successful. You can see that the recycle rate appears to be associated as well with the actual price of the deposit. Where there’s no deposit, nobody has an incentive to return those containers to the store. Where you have a deposit, lots of recycling. So these are incredibly effective laws.
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And look, they get resistance from beverage companies, resistance from stores because they don’t want to increase prices. But man, once they go in place, you see these recycling rates increase. It’s important you don’t just have a bottle recycling law, right? ‘Cause what do you do with those bottles when they come back? You’ve got to have a demand side as well. So you’ve got to set up who’s going to buy all that recycled material. Where’s that going to go? And that takes me to my next thing is, and this is the idea of a linear versus a circular economy. And this is a really lovely idea to end the videos in this course on.
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And I like it because in the past, the linear economy is represented here by this blue square in the upper right. And look, as you take a resource from the environment, you make a product from it, you use that product, you dispose of that product, and there’s a pollution from that product. We’ve grown wiser now. And people are beginning to think about how we can take this linear production cycle and turn it into a circle where we still have to generate energy and take materials out of the environment. We still produce, distribute and use those materials.
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But at the disposal stage, we think about how we can reuse those materials, how we can refurbish those materials or how we can recycle those materials. And if you think about these ideas, the reuse and the remanufacture, when you’re designing and producing your project, you can make materials and products that are easy to reuse. They’re easy to refurbish. They’re easy to recycle. And a great example of this is mobile phones, mobile phones where the battery can be replaced are much easier to refurbish and they don’t go in the bin as quickly and you can use them for longer. And so you not only reduce distribution, you reduce the production, you increase customer satisfaction.
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So they may be more likely to buy it from you and you reduce waste and emission. And essentially, the idea, the ideal here, and you’ll never reach the ideal, but the ideal here is to make a product that can be fully recycled, reused, or refurbished. You know, even after it’s refurbished, let’s say it’s refurbished twice or three times, and it’s really reached the end of its lifetime. At that point, you can disassemble the product easily into its components. You can take out the rare earth elements. You can separate those from the plastic pieces. You can separate the glass from the plastic and the e-waste and you can recycle each of those into new products.
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And so at the end of the day, really, it’s the energy input and material inputs have been reduced, that may be the energy inputs have been reduced as well. And you can think of this in food manufacture where you take food scraps and food waste and you regenerate energy from those. Look, it’s a great idea. The circular economy is growing in use and its ideas. It’s beginning. It may never replace the linear economy, but boy, it’s certainly something to think about and to strive for as a solution to reducing waste in our environment.

Reuse, refurbishment and recycling, along with reduction, are the major tools that we have to manage our waste production.

Watch Dr. Nathan B. English discuss current and future waste management strategies, rating them from the most to least favoured options and providing examples of how simple ideas can have a measurable impact on the amount of waste that goes in landfill.

Video guide

Since this video is a little longer than most videos in this course, here is a guide to the topics it covers.

Topic Timestamp
Strategies for waste management 0:30
The turn right example 3:00
Home composting 5:35
Second-hand stores 7:10
Impacts of the three Rs 9:00
Why doesn’t everybody recycle? 11:45
Bottle deposits 15:00
Linear vs. circular economy 17:20
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