Why I Don't Think Reusing Is Always Better Than Recycling

A Drop in the Ocean Zero Waste Store: Why Reusing Isn't Always Better Than Recycling
Listen to the audio of this post here:

This post first appeared in our weekly Make Waves Mondays email series on March 20, 2023.

So r
ecently on Instagram I’ve started a new series called, “I gotta say it…” where I’m sharing all of my sassy, why-is-no-one-talking-about-this thoughts about zero waste and sustainable living.

Because, look… Going zero waste is hard. 

It’s actually not even possible to be truly ZERO waste.

And there are a whole lot of factors that go into that - some personal, some societal.

And it’s only made more difficult by big (and small) brands trying to greenwash us (with “certifications” like being “plastic neutral”) and eco-influencers using sustainability buzzwords and terminology incorrectly (like the over-use of calling products “refillable” that are by definition actually single-use).

It’s a tough world out there to be an EcoWarrior.

So with this new “I gotta say it…” series, I’m finally shouting from the rooftops all the things I think are really effed up in the world of sustainability.

And, what’s really interesting, is that as I’m sharing these things, I’m finding that there are actually a lot of EcoWarriors out there who have been thinking the same thing, but haven’t felt like they could say anything or just hadn’t been validated in that way before.

So I’m gonna keep making this series and I’m gonna keep calling these things out. Because someone’s gotta say it.

And so for today’s blog, I’m sharing the most recent edition of “I gotta say it…” - that reusing isn’t actually always better than recycling.

Let’s dive into it 👇

So we all know the 3 R's - Reduce, Reuse, Recycle - right?

And many of us know the 6 R's of Zero Waste that expand on those three - Rethink, Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rot (compost).

A Drop in the Ocean Sustainable Living Zero Waste Shop 6 R's of Zero Waste

👉 In both, Reuse is before Recycle.

So why do I think that it shouldn't ~always~ be?

Recycling is a broken system.

Even specialty recycling systems that accept hard-to-recycle items aren't all that great. (I've called them out for greenwashing in the past.)

There's a right way to recycle, and a wrong way to recycle.

And let's face it, most of us are probably recycling wrong, whether we know it or not.

And when we recycle wrong, it means more contamination in the recycling stream and less that can actually be recycled at all.

Which sounds like it's a pretty bad system, right?

So why recycle at all?

And that's kinda the whole thing with the zero waste movement and a circular economy.

Recycling is broken, inefficient, and - in the case of all plastics and most paper - doesn't much reduce the demand for new, virgin, materials.

👉 And therefore, we should always reuse whatever we can before putting it in the recycling bin.

Seems super logical, right?

But let's look at glass as an example.

Glass is an incredibly highly-recyclable material.

♻️ 1 kilogram of recycled glass replaces 1.2 kilograms of raw materials.
♻️ Making new glass from recycled glass uses 30% less energy than making glass from virgin materials.
♻️ It only takes about 30 days for a glass bottle to be recycled and back on store shelves as a new glass bottle.

And yet...only about 31% of glass is recycled here in the United States.

Now, there are many factors at play here as to why so little glass is getting recycled - and that's a topic for another day.

But we're in the middle of a global sand shortage.

It's the second-most used resource on our planet, only beaten out by water.

A lot of it is being used for things like buildings and roads, but it's also used for - yep, you guessed it - glass.

🍷 So let's say you buy a bottle of wine from your favorite local bottle shop down the street.

When that wine is gone, what do you do with the bottle?

Conventional zero waste wisdom tells us to reuse it. 

Reuse is before recycling in the 6 R's of Zero Waste, after all.

And if you or a friend or a family member or a neighbor could ~really~ use an empty wine bottle for something, by all means, reuse it!

But if not... 

If you're just keeping that bottle around to maybe, hopefully, someday find a crafty Pinterest project for it...

That is doing zero good for zero people.

💥 By holding onto that empty glass wine bottle for a "someday" project, just because you've heard over and over again that recycling is broken and we should reuse everything first, you're actually keeping valuable materials out of the circular economy waste stream, and that wine bottle producer is going to have to use more raw, virgin materials to produce its next batch of glass wine bottles.

So what does this all mean? When should you reuse and when should you recycle?

✨ If you actually need a glass bottle or glass jar for something in your home - reuse what you've got! 

Like if you're running low on mason jars, hang onto that pickle jar rather than buying new mason jars. Absolutely do that.

✨ If you can reuse and refill that empty jar or bottle with the ~same thing~ it was used for originally - that’s even better! Do that. Always. 

Always choose that option over recycling.

Like if you’ve got an empty laundry detergent jar from A Drop in the Ocean, please don’t recycle that glass jar! Order a refill and send us back the empty jar to reuse and refill for years and years and years.

(Need a refresher on how our zero waste refill program works? Here’s the step-by-step guide!)

✨ But otherwise, if you have access to glass recycling where you live, use it!

Make sure your wine bottles and pickle jars are empty, clean, and dry, and get them into the proper recycling stream.

I give you guilt-free permission to recycle all of those “maybe someday” jars overflowing from your kitchen pantry.

Because when we ask, “Which is better - reusing or recycling?”, the answer is, it depends. But in the case of glass, it’s usually actually recycle.

And as a quick reminder…

There are no perfect solutions. No black-and-white answers. We're all just out here doing the best we can, when we can, where we can. And the more we have these conversations, even if they go against conventional wisdom, the better we can do.

And this is a much bigger problem in the US than in Europe. On average, 90% of glass is properly recycled in Europe. So clearly there are solutions out there, we just gotta actually use them.

💙 So tell me friend, what do you think about all of this?? Comment below and tell me what you think!

Sources + Further Reading
Environmental Factoids: US EPA
Glass: Material-Specific Data: US EPA
"What happens to...?"
Why glass recycling in the US is broken: Chemical & Engineering News
Why the world is running out of sand: BBC

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