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Reuse and recycling, a modest proposal

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Earth Day Special Feature 2011: Garbage in, garbage out: Rather than just recycle, why not focus on reuse?

If you look closely at the companies that support some sort of corporate sustainability agenda, you'll notice a hierarchy of strategies when it comes to their waste management policies. The slogan that technology giant Dell uses "Reduce, Reuse and Recycle," is a great way of expressing that hierarchy. Dell doesn't "own" that slogan, certainly, but it uses it to good effect as do a number of other corporate sustainability leaders. But while you will see lots of articles and proclamations about recycling, I'd like to suggest that the conversation around the "reuse" part of the equation be better amplified.

In the case of Dell, specifically, the company has declared that by 2012, it wants its reuse and recycling rate to be 99 percent. (In fiscal year 2010, it was about 96 percent.) If you read further in its report, you'll see that the company talks a great deal about all the recycling efforts it has going on but there really isn't all that much mention of what it is doing around reuse.

That's not to knock what Dell is doing because the company is doing a lot really smart things across the board with respect to corporate social responsibility, but I think corporate sustainability and social responsibility program leaders need to focus more attention on educating both their own internal teams and the general public at larger about the benefits of thinking about how to reuse or "upcycle" products or items that are already in circulation before assuming that they need to be put toward some other purpose.

The most obvious example, of course, would be the notion that we use drink our water from refillable containers rather than individual plastic bottles, or that we encourage people to bring reusable bags to the store when they are shopping. IKEA and Whole Foods Market are just two of the organizations that pioneered the idea of giving shoppers some sort of discount (maybe 5 cents or 10 cents off per bag) to bring their own bags. Now my local supermarket does the same thing.

But the idea of reuse goes far beyond that: A three-year-old Web page pulled together by Columbia University offers some simple suggestions, including everything from refilling hand-pump soap dispensers to using old newspapers to line gardening rows as a weed deterrent.

These are rather consumer-focused ideas, of course. But there is potential for plenty of innovation when it comes to corporate reuse. In particular, why not thinking about recycling with an eye toward reusing those materials?

There are some great examples of this. Here are several:

  • Hewlett-Packard has focused seriously not only on increasing the recycling rate for the millions of inkjet and laser printer cartridges that its printing and imaging products creates, it has also focused on reusing those materials not only in another generation (or two) of supplies but also as the components for parts in some of its printers.
  • The Web site, reuseit.com, has created a whole e-commerce business out of selling items that are reusable -- everything from shopping bags to rechargeable candles. Said Vincent Cobb, founder of the company, in one of its recent press releases: "By making a few simple changes -- consuming fewer disposable items and using reusables whenever possible -- each of us has the potential to make a huge impact on the environment."
  • The Coca-Cola Co. has pioneered an entirely new sort of bottle, called PlantBottle, that is made out of recycled PET plastic. It has the capacity to produce 100 million pounds of food grade recycled PET for reuse every year -- which is the equivalent of creating 2 billion 20-ounce bottles. The company also recently launched an effort to take back and reuse its merchandise displays (called Give It Back racks). Some of these racks will even be made out of recycled plastic. They are supposed to be used more widely by the end of 2011.
  • Valvoline, the oil products company, recently announced a green campaign underpinned by a new motor oil product called NextGen made from (you guessed it) 50 percent recycled oil. Another company, Universal Lubricants, is doing the same.

Perhaps the most vivid example of a business spawned by the idea that recycling and reuse go hand-in-hand is Terracycle, which espouses the slogan "Outsmart Waste." Terracycle takes all manner of things that people don't want and reincarnates them as everything from reusable bags to clipboards to toys to gardening products. "Upcycling is by far the very best thing that you can do for the environment," said Tom Szaky, who founded Terracycle back in 2001 when he was a freshman at Princeton University.

Right now, there are about 19 million individuals who collect "garbage" on Terracycle's behalf. When you send in a box, the company will donate to your designated charity. It also works with large, well-known retailers and consumer products companies. The latest: Old Navy will be collecting old flip-flops on Terracycle's behalf. Right now, the company collects something like 500 million pieces of trash, waste -- whatever you want to call it -- every month. "100 percent of what we accept, we put into our products. We don't give it to anyone else because there is no one else to give it to," Szaky says.

His comment underscores the biggest problem that the United States has today when it comes to recycling: our legacy waste management system. That's why it's vitally important that the private sector take a leadership role in closed-loop innovation that looks not just at recycling, but that considers recycling processes as a means to reuse.

More from SmartPlanet's Earth Day Special Feature 2011:

Heather Clancy

Section Editor

Heather Clancy has written for United Press International, ZDNet, Entrepreneur, Fortune Small Business, the International Herald Tribune and the New York Times. She holds a degree from McGill University. She is based in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure