Reuse, Recycle, Repurpose: Is It All Just Semantics?
Here’s betting you know the 3 R’s of waste management: reuse, recycle, and repurpose. Even if you don’t know exactly what each one entails, you are probably familiar with the terms themselves. But here’s a question to consider: is it all just semantics? Do all three terms refer to the same thing? Yes and no.
Subtle Differences Between Them
The waste management purist is quick to see subtle differences between the three terms. Here are those differences in a nutshell:
- Reuse – You extend the life of a particular item by continually reusing it until it breaks or wears out. For example, you could reuse a paper coffee cup several times and it would hold up just fine.
- Recycle – You recover valuable materials from objects that have reached end-of-life. Those materials are then used to make new products.
- Repurpose – You take an existing product that is no longer usable for its intended purpose and, instead, use it for something else.
With these definitions in mind, it is easy to make the case that the three terms are different enough to warrant clear distinctions. On the other hand, they all achieve the same basic principle. In that sense, you could make the case that all three are just different ways to do the same thing.
Recycling Industrial Plastic Waste
The principle can be clearly illustrated through the concept of industrial plastic waste recycling. Take Seraphim Plastics out of Tennessee. The company buys and recycles industrial plastic waste in seven states. One of the things they recycle is baled PET.
Seraphim will pick up a load of PET bottles and take it to one of their processing centers. There, the bottles are sent through a series of grinders and magnets that ultimately reduce it to plastic regrind. The regrind is sold to manufacturers who mix it with virgin plastic to make new products.
1. Plastic Is Being Reused
If you stop and think about it, the plastic itself is being reused. It isn’t being broken down into its individual components for any other purpose. All Seraphim’s process does is take big bottles and reduce them to smaller pieces. Then the plastic is ultimately used again.
2. Plastic Is Being Recycle
Recycling is the process of recovering valuable materials so that they can be put into new products. PET recycling certainly fits the bill. Again, the plastic is not being broken down into its individual components. That’s because the entire plastic is usable. It is being recovered in its normal state and mixed with other materials for new manufacturing.
3. Plastic Is Being Repurposed
The same plastic recovered by Seraphim is also being repurposed in the sense that the regrind may not necessarily become new plastic bottles. Recycled PET can be utilized to manufacture everything from waterproof fabrics to eyewear frames. Some of it does go into manufacturing new bottles.
It’s All About Reducing Waste
Whether or not reusing, recycling, and repurposing are the same thing doesn’t matter as much as the end goal: reducing waste. That’s what it’s all about. We do these things in an effort to keep material out of the waste stream. Where plastic is concerned, there is an awful lot to reuse, recycle, and re-purpose.
Reducing waste is a worthwhile goal. It frees up landfill space and reduces incinerator pollution. It reduces our dependence on natural resources. It even saves money over the long term. Knowing what we know about waste reduction, it doesn’t matter whether we reuse, recycle, or repurpose. What matters is that we do as much as we can to reduce waste.