The 3Rs: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle (& more)

The 3Rs: reduce, reuse, recycle; are apparently more than a textbook topic. 

It is, in fact, a topic of light debate. 

The debate continues if it is 3, 4, or 5 Rs in total and if its origin dates back to the Vietnam War or, more profoundly, during the launch of the “3R Initiative” in the spring 2005 Ministerial Conference in Japan or the most recent mention of 5Rs in the European Union’s 2008 Waste Framework Directive

But the plain truth is that — it stuck around. 

This 3-word catchphrase made it through many decades without losing meaning. 

We believe it’s because it is understandable by all ages alike and applicable to any individual or organization.

What will you find in this article?

  • EU laws that mandate the 5Rs.
  • How your business can apply the waste hierarchy to optimally manage the waste.

Why the Rs, & what is the waste hierarchy?

According to a World Bank report, global waste production is expected to increase by 70% by 2050 if nothing changes quickly, representing up to 3.4 billion tons of waste annually.  

It follows a simple logic: the more we consume, the more waste we generate. 

This reality is not without consequences for our health and the planet. 

Faced with this fact, this is vital to rethink the life cycle of products with a double objective: to use materials as much as possible while generating a minimum of waste. 

European Union’s (EU) waste laws, applicable to the member states, include several laws addressing different types of waste and policies on protecting the environment and human health.

The Waste Framework Directive (WFD) is the EU’s legal framework for treating and managing waste, the foundation of which is a five-step “waste hierarchy.” 

Trying to locate the Rs? 

Let us help you: 

EU Waste laws > Waste Framework Directive > Waste Hierarchy (5Rs)

These 5Rs of the waste hierarchy promote the management and disposal of waste in the specific order:

  1. Prevention (reduce)
  2. Preparing for reuse 
  3. Recycling
  4. Recovery 
  5. Disposal

Applying the Waste Hierarchy (5Rs) to Your Business

If your business produces or handles waste (including importing, producing, carrying, keeping, treating, transferring, or disposing of waste), then you are obliged to apply the hierarchy for waste management.  

A little bit about us; Fairmat is a Deeptech founded in 2020, and we offer help to organizations seeking to manage their carbon fiber composite waste at 3 different steps of the waste hierarchy (prepare for re-use, recycling, disposal).

We are committed to building a “sustainable manufacturing ecosystem” by recycling waste and developing new advanced materials, therefore bridging the many steps of the hierarchy.

A guide published by DEFRA (UK) explains how businesses that produce or handle waste can apply the waste hierarchy. Combining our understanding and DEFRA’s reference, we can let you take stock of each step of the hierarchy and make meaningful decisions. 

1st R: Prevention (Reduce):

“The best waste is the one you don’t produce.”

Waste prevention measures can be taken before the product or material in question becomes waste. 

We cannot emphasize this enough: ‘Before product becomes waste‘; because all measures, big or small — from awareness campaigns to renting machinery, can prevent or reduce waste. 

This is the step where you can take a moment to ask: what type of waste does my business produce or handle? Are we dealing with all our waste in the most environmentally-sound manner yet? 

The underlying idea, at this step, is to start at the source by sustainably producing and responsibly consuming from the get-go. 

Your waste prevention checklist can look something like this:

  • If the business is into manufacturing or distributing products, consider using less input material while reducing the amount of hazardous content in it. 
  • Check if it’s possible to extend the product’s life span. The products can be eco-designed or manufactured for maximum resource efficiency by improving their durability, reparability, reusability, or upgrade possibility.  
  • Equipment, in general, can be retained and used for a longer time. And unwanted equipment can be sold/donated/swapped.
  • Logistics and distribution can be checked for utmost sustainability. 
  • The use of reusable packaging can be encouraged. 
  • The focus should also ideally be shifted to products using critical raw materials first, allowing reducing the amount of waste while preserving the raw materials. 
  • Additionally, the waste produced during the manufacturing processes can be monitored for leakage, thereby ensuring nothing leaves untreated. 

An economic instrument such as the Carbon Tax on the packaging, promoting the reuse of your products by establishing second-hand centers, or leasing spaces locally are some examples of reducing waste. We’ve been commended frequently for leasing our factory in France; read more

To go down the rest of the order smoothly, ‘encouragement’ can be your business’ stepping stone. 

Manufacturers can give consumers the means to reduce waste (such as spare parts, instruction manuals, etc.), which in turn encourages them to reuse, repair or recycle the product in the future. 

2nd R: Preparing for Reuse

This step is where we can find one last use for our product or material before it can be labeled ‘waste.’  

According to the Commission, the difference between ‘resue’ and ‘preparing for reuse’ is that in the latter case, the material or product has already become waste.  

Preparing for reuse is checking, cleaning, sorting, and/or repairing it for further use. For example, an item of vintage clothing you purchased from another owner was being ‘prepared for reuse’ when they stitched a missing button on it.  

Reusing is not how we can manage waste; it is only how we can prevent or reduce waste. 

The Waste Framework Directive (WFD) mandates the EU member states to encourage the reuse of products and promote repair and reuse activities to reduce waste generation, as explained by EEB

DEFRA suggests that businesses can ask at this stage: If their business can send their ‘waste’ (or more ‘waste’) to another organization that can repair, clean, or refurbish it so that it can be eventually used?

Many EU member states have introduced binding targets for the reuse of overall waste or specific waste streams. Spanish law has set requirements for separate collection, transport, and storage to enable reuse. Belgium promotes reuse by incentivizing reduced VAT over reused/repaired goods and services provided by designated enterprises.

In an article, David Madden has explained how you can find reusable shipping containers online, which the distributors can return at the end of their route for further use. 

3rd R: Recycling

With prevention and reusing measures in place, it’s time to think about giving a second life to your products

Recycling is the processing of waste by any physical, chemical, or biological treatment in order to use the resulting recyclate for the same or other purposes, thereby replacing the virgin material and closing the circular loop.

Recycling is given the highest preference amongst all the forms of recovery by the WFD. And it is the Directive’s explicit goal for the EU to become a ‘recycling society.’ 

Some limitations to recycling are insufficient separation of materials and loss of material or quality, which weighs on its popularity. 

DEFRA’s guide suggests that businesses need to discuss their needs with companies or organizations that can provide recycling services. It also refers to a search engine that allows one to search for the nearest recycling services in the UK. 

If your enterprise produces carbon fiber composite waste, click here to find out if it is recyclable. 

Note: Waste pre-processing operations like dismantling, sorting, crushing, drying, shredding, repackaging, and separating, among others, are not considered recycling. Similarly, recycling is favored and is different from other recovery options discussed below. However, composting is a recycling method, given it meets the Directive’s requirements.

4th R: Recovery

It might not always be possible to manage all the waste generated using the first 3Rs — only then the less environmentally friendly but practical recovery options should be explored. 

Recovery methods are how businesses can recover energy or materials from the waste by using processes like: 

  • Combustion with energy recovery
  • Incineration and co-incineration with energy recovery
  • Anaerobic digestion 
  • Pyrolysis
  • Gasification

5th R: Disposal

According to WFD, anything that is not a recovery method is considered disposal. This definition is as convenient as ‘disposal’ currently is. Disposal is simply discarding the waste. 

Widely used disposal methods are landfilling (even when the gas produced is used for energy recovery), incinerating the waste with low energy recovery, or waste injection into the land. 

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