Think You Know the Three Rs of Waste Management? Think Again!

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The three Rs — reduce, reuse, recycle — probably ring a bell from your childhood. But most people don’t know these repeating consonants represent the waste management hierarchy. Think of it as a comprehensive way to deal with waste in a way that is better for the planet and the people who dwell on it.

Reduction is the key to waste management

Reduction is first in the hierarchy for a reason. Reducing the amount of waste at its source is key to cutting impact.

Start with the basics — Paper: Paper is a big place to start for most businesses. Although we live in the electronics age, a staggering amount of paperwork is still generated: Thirty billion documents are printed annually in the U.S. The average U.S. office worker generates around two pounds of paper and paperboard products every day, and around 90 percent of all office waste is paper. Approximately 500 paper documents are signed by the average authorized employee every year. So, reducing paperwork will go a long way to reducing office waste.

Reducing paperwork is simple, as a guide by North Carolina State University shows:

  • Reuse manila envelopes.
  • Make scratch pads from used paper.
  • Circulate memos, documents, periodicals, and reports instead of printing individual copies. 
  • Proofread documents before printing them out.

Companies like Adobe offer a number of services that help further eliminate paperwork. Through Adobe Document Cloud a document can be created, signed and stored. And doing so means that document has an environmental footprint that is 91 percent less than if it was printed, plus a cost savings of over 90 percent.

A waste management guide published by New Mexico State University lists ways to reduce waste, again with paper as a baseline item. A key suggestion from the university is to eliminate phone books. Just the white pages alone cost 5 million trees a year. And while phone books are delivered via snail-mail once a year, services like YellowPagesOptOut.com allow people to opt-out of automatic phone book delivery. And smartphone apps like YP can replace the yellow pages.

New York City’s Department of Environmental Protection swapped phone books for electronic phone directories and eliminated about 1.3 tons of paper every year. Plus, it reduced greenhouse gas impacts by 2.8 metric tons of carbon equivalent (MTCE) a year. Recycling that amount would only produce a reduction of one MTCE a year.

The next level: Textiles: Items that pile up quickly in the trash can, such as paper, are a great place to start for both people and businesses looking to reduce waste. But other waste streams can pile up nearly as quickly, although we may not notice it. 

For example, Americans toss away 14 million tons of textiles every year. And while shoppers have their own role to play, corporate actors also took note of this figure. And many opted to employ upcycling as a way to address it. Instead of recycling a piece of clothing, through upcycling it is transformed into a new garment for someone else. The clothing retailer Reformation, for example, takes vintage garments, deadstock fabrics and sustainable fabrics and incorporates them into new pieces of clothing. Based in Downtown Los Angeles, about 40 percent of the fabrics that make up Reformation’s clothes are from vintage or deadstock.

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Reuse to give new life to old products

There is an old saying that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. That is certainly true when it comes to waste management. For individuals, thrift stores are a prime example. They sell stuff that other people have deemed unusable, but instead of throwing the stuff away, they bring it to thrift stores. Clothing is a common item that winds up in shops like these, making them a vital component in the fight against textile waste.

Apparel companies are also rising to the occasion. Encouraging people to breathe new life into their clothes by repairing them is something that outdoor clothing retailer Patagonia understands. The outdoor gear label operates the largest garment repair facility in North America. The company boasts that it completed over 40,000 individual repairs in 2015 alone.

The company trains its retail staff to do simple repair jobs. And it partners with iFixit to publish over 400 free repair guides for Patagonia products so consumers can learn how to repair their gear themselves. As Patagonia CEO Rose Marcario wrote in a blog post, “We go to great lengths to provide our customers with opportunities to fix their gear themselves, find it a new home or recycle it if necessary.”

Recycle to avoid landfill waste

Some products just can’t be reused. But they can be recycled. Patagonia’s Worn Wear program is a good example. Through the program, Patagonia accepts all of its worn-out garments. Customers can bring their old, worn-out Patagonia gear to any of the company’s stores or mail them to the company. Patagonia has recycled over 82 tons of clothing since 2005.

Another waste item that doesn’t receive nearly enough attention, despite its prevalence, is electronics. When it comes to electronics, we are encouraged to upgrade to the latest device as often as possible. However, that is not always the best thing to do. Take cell phones. Every time we upgrade our smartphone, the old one must be disposed. While they can be recycled, it is better to keep a smartphone as long as possible. Some phone companies encourage upgrading a smartphone every year. However, if we only upgrade every two or three years, we have extended the life of our phone and saved money.

Sometimes two areas of the waste management hierarchy will collide. Cell phones are one area. While it is best to hang on to a phone as long as possible, eventually it will need to be upgraded. So, finding a way to recycle your old device is of the utmost importance. Each of the four main cell phone carriers in the U.S. offer recycling programs. AT&T’s trade-in program allows customers to bring unwanted devices, including smartphones, to a company-owned retail store to be recycled. The devices can come from any carrier. Through the trade-in program, customers who bring in an unwanted device receive AT&T Promotion Card, which can be used to either offset the cost of upgrading, toward buying AT&T products and services, or donating the value of it to an AT&T designated charity.

Most of us have numerous electronic devices we use daily in addition to our smartphones, such as laptops and tablets. An estimated three-quarters of all computers sold in the U.S. remain unused, waiting to be disposed. 

So, how do we recycle our laptops and tablets? Take AT&T’s trade-in program. Devices other than smartphones can be recycled through the program, including tablets. Another way to recycle unwanted but still working electronics is to give them to someone who can still use them, or the second R in the waste management hierarchy: reuse. Charitable organizations and thrift stores will usually accept computers that are still in working condition, as will many local community centers. 

The bottom line

For both individuals and businesses, it’s great to start with the basics when it comes to reducing waste. But landfill space is dwindling and the planet is already being impacted by climate change. So, it’s vital to move beyond that first stepping stone, look past commonly-recycled items (and even recycling itself), and rethink how we manage waste in every aspect of our lives. Whether it’s an office memo, your favorite gadget or the shirt on your back, there’s always a better option than the landfill.

Image credits: 1) Flickr/Danielle Buma (cropped); 2) Flickr/Neil Barnwell

Gina-Marie Cheeseman

Gina-Marie is a freelance writer and journalist armed with a degree in journalism, and a passion for social justice, including the environment and sustainability. She writes for various websites, and has made the 75+ Environmentalists to Follow list by Mashable.com.

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