Over recent years, as society has begun its long-overdue re-routing toward a more sustainable mode of collective existence, a whole series of new words and phrases have entered into our lexicon: ‘green’, ‘carbon-neutral’, ‘environmentally-friendly’. Foremost amongst these – and within the linguistic grasp of every primary schooler across the land – are the catchy ‘Three Rs’: ‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle’.
It certainly has a ring to it. Perhaps because of its smooth phonics, however, it has become something of a buzzphrase – that is, an expression which is widely used without ever being interrogated or fully understood. If we were to deconstruct the phrase, we’d find that its first two clauses – ‘reduce’ and ‘recycle’ – are widely recognized as major weapons in the battle to save our environment. The middle word, though – ‘reuse’ – is comparatively ignored. This may not be altogether surprising. The word ‘reuse’ is actually entirely redundant in this context, given the dual meaning of ‘recycle’ as ‘to convert waste into usable material’ and simply ‘to use a given object again’ (that is, to reuse it).
Linguistically redundant, certainly: but practically speaking, the importance of reusing our materials can’t be overstated. To put it bluntly, ‘recycling’ alone is woefully insufficient as a solution to the world’s environmental issues. As the UN Environment Programme has underlined, only 9 percent of the plastic generated since the 1950s – that’s 9.9 billion tonnes, to be precise – has been effectively recycled. Even those materials which are placed into the recycling are not always stripped of all of their carbon negativity: PVC, for example, whilst technically recyclable, is often sorted in with non-recyclable waste due to issues with its colouring when broken down.
On top of these practical issues, the tag ‘recyclable’ or ‘recycled’ has provided corporations with a means of marketing as ‘green’ their mass-produced (and hugely environmentally damaging) produce. Recycling is used to justify, via a process of greenwashing, the continued use of disposable plastic.
This is not to say that recycling isn’t an essential aspect of sustainable living; it is. What it does help to illustrate, however, is that the over-focus on recycling among the general public – positioning it as a ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution to all the world’s environmental woes – is at best distortionary, and at worst actively dangerous.
Where recycling seeks to treat a symptom, reusing and refilling works to eliminate the cause: instead of simply mitigating the environmental impact of mass-produced plastic, it eliminates the need for it altogether. This makes intuitive sense, and is hardly an alien idea: many of our parents – and certainly their parents – considered it a matter of course to return their empty receptacles to shops in return for a deposit. It’s been done before, and can be done again: our penchant for single-use plastic is a much newer habit than the reuse and refill model, and it’s one we can easily unlearn.
As we’ve noted, though, the business world sees certain practical advantages in the recycling model. Apart from the ethical imperative – not known to a primary motivating factor for multinational brands – why would major companies widen their horizons to include the ‘Third R’?
The answer is simple: it can be a money-spinner. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates that converting 20% of the global plastic packaging industry into a refill and reuse model represents a business opportunity worth $10 billion. These kind of figures do not go unnoticed by corporate types, and refill-based initiatives are becoming increasingly common within major companies. Asda, for example, have opened a new ‘sustainability trial store’ in the UK, which includes ‘refill stations’. Similarly, P&G Beauty – a superpower in the world of skincare and beauty products – have announced that, as of 2021, they will be launching a new refillable aluminium bottle in order to create a culture of reuse within their community of consumers.
So on the occasion or World Refill Day – and, indeed, on every other day – we should be sure to remember the central importance of refilling and reusing as weapons with which to combat environmental decline!