For many years we have followed the ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ mantra – we learnt it at school, we took it to our homes, offices, back to school with our kids – and it became firmly rooted in our everyday language. This is great. Until we thing about just how we apply it to our lives. How often do we actually do the ‘reduce and reuse’ bit compared to the ‘recycle’ bit? If this is the order we should be working in… why is recycling the go-to in so many situations and why is this wrong?
Firstly, recycling isn’t wrong. There are many benefits to recycling (reprocessing materials and saving it from landfill or incineration), but it is easy to confuse the circular economy with the recycling economy. There are differences.
As we can see from our little sketch above, the linear economy is the way we currently consume, live, work. We make a thing, use a thing then discard the thing. Linear from ‘cradle’ (start of life) to ‘grave’ (end of life). The recycling economy is slightly different. It recovers some items and materials and spins them out from that linear system and puts them back in again – as new items, products or goods. But the trouble is, the recycling economy is not perfect. It just delays the inevitable drop into the bin at the bottom. Why? Some materials cannot be recycled effectively, or need the input of ‘new’ materials to make them strong enough to function. Recycling slows the waste down… but it doesn’t eliminate it.
A circular economy is different. It keeps products, materials, waste streams and more in a constant loop with as little as possible (and hopefully nothing) dropping into the bin at the end. Is recycling part of a circular economy? Sure. But is it the primary driving force? Erm… no. It is the last option we should be looking at – there are more actions we should be embracing before the inevitable need to recycle pops up.
So going back to those three R’s we learnt so long ago… circularity is wide and varied and often complicated, but if we were going to pick just three words to work with – and rank them in order of importance… 1. Reduce, 2. Reuse, 3. Recycle… not a bad place to start?