This is Shanghai Airport’s* simple yet effective way to deal with lighters confiscated at security:
It is simple reuse via redistribution. Yet in a short article publicizing the initiative, the environmentally-savvy Good Magazine called this “recycling.” It’s a common and seemingly simple mistake, and is just one of a myriad of daily examples where reuse is called recycling. Yet it is extremely important to differentiate between the two for political and environmental reasons.
Recycling is an industrial process that collects used or abandoned materials, and smashes, melts, shreds or otherwise transforms them into their constituent raw materials. Recycling can reduce waste, the need for virgin materials, energy consumption, air pollution, and landfill leachates, though this occurs in varying degrees for different processes. But recycling is not environmentally benign. First, recycling institutionalizes disposables and single-use items by treating them after they have been created, meaning more single-use and disposable items are guaranteed to be made and tossed in the future. Make no mistake: recycling is a form of disposal. Secondly, as an industrial process, it necessitates expenditures of energy and virgin materials, and produces pollutants, greenhouse gases and waste. For example, recycling paper involves using water and electricity to separate paper fibers which must then be de-inked, a process that results in toxic sludge. Thirdly, recycling is not a closed-loop system. Even if we concentrate on the 6-30% of recyclables in the US that are actually captured in the recycling stream, and ignore the two-thirds of captured recyclables that are dumped in landfills when market prices for recyclables plummet or bails are contaminated, recycling often creates products that are “down-cycled.” Down-cycled products are not as robust as their predecessors, nor are such products usually recyclable themselves (polyurethane plastics, for example, are often turned into asphalt or other end-of-the-line objects). The chances for a recyclable object to be recycled twice in its life is less than 1%.
Reuse, on the other hand, is an act that challenges the institutionalization of easy disposal and the politics of industry-supported “environmentalism” and consumption. It does not require new materials. It reduces waste instead of merely diverting it. It offers an opportunity for creativity as materials are repurposed. Currently, many acts of reuse, especially of things usually considered waste, involve individuals choosing to repurpose objects. Becoming a reuse culture– the large-scale institutionalization and normalizing of reuse– instead of a throw-away culture perpetuated by guilt-free recycling would include changing the practices of production and consumption. There would be no more single-use items. It would encourage the stewardship and care of objects. Objects would be redesigned to be durable, repairable, and safe. This possibility is why reuse is a potentially political act, while recycling maintains the status quo.
When we call reuse or repurposing “recycling,” “recycling” comes to denote its competitors in solid waste management. The narrowing of descriptive language for different types of environmental participation and practices narrows concepts of waste alternatives by positing recycling as other alternatives, even when there is a hierarchy of environmental effectiveness and politics between regulation, reduction, redesign, reuse, and recycling. This signals a political failure to differentiate between ideologically diverse environmental actions, not a mere slip in vocabulary.
Max Liboiron, “Recycling as a Crisis of Meaning,” eTopia: Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies, (4) Spring 2009.
MacBride, S. (2011). Recycling reconsidered: the present failure and future promise of environmental action in the United States. MIT Press.
McDonough, W. and M. Braungart (2002). Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way we Make Things. New York, North Point Press.
Tom Mochal, “The Reuse Environment is More About Culture Than Technology,” TechRepublic, January 23, 2002.
* Thank you to reader Lynna Yee for the correction. 3/15/16