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Reduce, Reuse, THEN Recycle: Why That Order Matters

A picture of used aluminum cans.
Tambako the Jaguar
Cans can be reused before the aluminum is recycled. But refilling a growler can produce even less waste.

Spring cleaning is underway; you can tell from the yard sales dotting lawns over the weekend. Most other unwanted items can go in your recycling bin. Morning Edition producer Rebecca Martinez has been reporting on recycling and re-use.

Eric Hodge: Communities across the state have really been pushing recycling in recent years, making it more convenient. Why does that matter?

Rebecca Martinez: Landfills are huge producers of methane, which is a greenhouse gas. Some landfills are trying to harness that for electricity. Lots don't, and it's not a perfect system yet. They  increase risk of polluting water. They also take up an enormous amount of space and are expensive to maintain.

EH: Has it made a difference?

RM: Yes. According to the Department of Environment and Natural resources, in 1991 each person in North Carolina threw out 1.7 tons of waste per person. By 2014, that number was down to 0.93 tons. North Carolina mandated recycling in the early 90s, and it's only become more convenient since then, with many cities offering curbside pick-up of single-stream materials. That means no sorting. The biggest drop happened during the recession, when retail numbers also took a dip, meaning people bought less.

EH: That sounds like a good thing. Especially since Wake County announced last year that one of its landfills would last an extra 10 years.

RM: It's a step in the right direction, but with the state population growing, increased solid waste is still a concern. Rhonda Sherman is an Extension Agent at NC State University. She wrote some recycling guidelines when the state was beefing up recycling efforts in the 90s. She says there's a reason that the hierarchy goes: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, in that order. She says recycling comes last because it's not the best option.

"That means your local government or a private hauler has to come pick up that item, and then it has to be washed and cleaned and then it has to be hauled somewhere to be processed and remanufactured. And then maybe it gets turned into plastic lumber or a flower pot. So it's great that it has been diverted from the landfill, but resources have been used, and pollution has been created by recycling."

Sherman says it's better to consider whether you really need a new item and its packaging before buying it, and then to reuse what you can; like flipping over a piece of paper to print on the back, or re-using a coffee can for storage instead of tossing it in the bin.

EH: So what are other ways people are reusing materials?

RM: There are industries all over this. There are used car lots, and home improvement stores that re-use building materials, like the Habitat Restore. And, of course, thrift stores. Rich Carr from the Durham Mission Thrift says their business has grown rapidly in recent years. They opened two new stores in the last few years. But there are a bunch of more unconventional ways businesses are making money by selling reused items. We'll explore them in a series of stories I've got coming up.

Four stories in our occasional series, The Business of Reuse, will air here on Morning Edition next week.

Martinez profiled four local businesses that reuse materials:

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