Reuse is the action or practice of using an item, whether for its original purpose (conventional reuse) or to fulfil a different function (creative reuse or repurposing). It should be distinguished from recycling, which is the breaking down of used items to make raw materials for the manufacture of new products. Reuse – by taking, but not reprocessing, previously used items – helps save time, money, energy and resources. In broader economic terms, it can make quality products available to people and organizations with limited means, while generating jobs and business activity that contribute to the economy.
Historically, financial motivation was one of the main drivers of reuse. In the developing world this driver can lead to very high levels of reuse, however rising wages and consequent consumer demand for the convenience of disposable products has made the reuse of low value items such as packaging uneconomic in richer countries, leading to the demise of many reuse programs. Current environmental awareness is gradually changing attitudes and regulations, such as the new packaging regulations, are gradually beginning to reverse the situation.
One example of conventional reuse is the doorstep delivery of milk in glass bottles; other examples include the retreading of tires and the use of returnable/reusable plastic boxes, shipping containers, instead of single-use corrugated fiberboard boxes.
Advantages and disadvantages
Reuse has certain potential advantages:
- Energy and raw materials savings as replacing many single use products with one reusable one reduces the number that need to be manufactured.
- Reduced disposal needs and costs.
- Refurbishment can bring sophisticated, sustainable, well paid jobs to underdeveloped economies.
- Cost savings for business and consumers as a reusable product is often cheaper than the many single use products it replaces.
- Some older items were better handcrafted and appreciate in value.
Disadvantages are also apparent:
- Reuse often requires cleaning or transport, which have environmental costs.
- Some items, such as freon appliances, infant auto seats, older tube TVs and secondhand automobiles could be hazardous or less energy efficient as they continue to be used.
- Reusable products need to be more durable than single-use products, and hence require more material per item. This is particularly significant if only a small proportion of the reusable products are in fact reused.
- Sorting and preparing items for reuse takes time, which is inconvenient for consumers and costs money for businesses.
- Special skills are required to tweak the functional throughout of items when devoting them to new uses outside of their original purpose.
- Knowing the standards that legacy products conform to is required for knowing what adapters to buy for newer products to be compatible with them, even though the cost of adapters for such applications is a minor disadvantage.
- Being a rather minor disadvantage, metal that is repurposed later on can sometimes contain rust, seeing as it sometimes ages before reuse.
Reuse centers and virtual exchange
These services facilitate the transaction and redistribution of unwanted, yet perfectly usable, materials and equipment from one entity to another. The entities that benefit from either side of this service (as donors, sellers, recipients, or buyers) can be businesses, nonprofits, schools, community groups, and individuals. Some maintain a physical space (a reuse center), and others act as a matching service (a virtual exchange). Reuse centers generally maintain both warehouses and trucks. They take possession of the donated materials and make them available for redistribution or sale. Virtual exchanges do not have physical space or trucks, but instead allow users to post listings of materials available and wanted (for free or at low cost) on an online materials exchange website. Staff will help facilitate the exchange of these materials without ever taking possession of the materials.
Virtual exchanges include:
- donateNYC (New York)
- Alchemy Goods
- Materials for the Arts (Queens, New York)
- STAY VOCAL (Norwell, MA)
Consumer resources exist for exchanging usable materials, such as freecycling sites which are often grassroots and entirely nonprofit movements of people who are giving (and getting) stuff for free in their own towns. It's all about reuse and keeping good stuff out of landfills. Membership is normally free. In, addition, there are directory-based resources such as RecycleChicken.com which point consumers to local and national locations for reuse and repurposing of materials not normally accepted in recycling programs.
- Teleplan Camera Repair has introduced a free camera recycling program through the reuse of cameras.
- Woolloongabba, Queensland
- Marrickville, New South Wales:
- Reverse Garbage was the first (1976) and is the largest reuse centre in the country, diverting more than 12,000 cubic metres of resources from landfills each year and educating more than 16000 people each year about reuse and sustainability.
- The Bower Reuse and Repair Centre diverts more than 7,500 cubic metres of 'waste' from landfills a year in a building entirely made of salvaged materials.
- Perth, Western Australia:
With technological innovations, new applications and shorter product lifetimes there is an ever-increasing quantity of waste electrical and electronic equipment. The environmental pressures associated with this are well documented and include material and energy losses and an increase in air, water and land pollution from waste treatment methods. The incorrect disposal and treatment of electrical and electronic equipment also poses threats to human health, particularly when involving illegal exports.
Virtual exchanges include:
Addressing issues of repair, reuse and recycling
One way to address this is to increase product longevity; either by extending a product's first life or addressing issues of repair, reuse and recycling. Reusing products, and therefore extending the use of that item beyond the point where it is discarded by its first user is preferable to recycling or disposal, as this is the least energy intensive solution, although it is often overlooked.
The EU Circular Economy Package recognises the importance of extending product lifetimes and includes repair and reuse of products in its action plan to ensure products reach their optimum lifespan. If targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions are to be reached, then reuse needs to be included as part of a whole life cycle approach.
A strong second hand market-place exists, with charity shops on most high streets, car boot(trunk) sales and online auction sites maintaining popularity and regular TV shows featuring both buying and selling at auction.
Inadequate repair infrastructure
However, the reuse of electrical and electronic equipment products remains low due to inadequate infrastructure, lack of repair networks and products. Local authority collection systems are better suited for handling waste than handling goods and preserving reuse potential. Retailer delivery staff are trained to handle goods carefully.
So, do we need a radical rethink on how we move unwanted, still usable items to the second-hand market place? Is there a case for changing our approach to producer responsibility and insisting that producers finance collection for reuse, and additionally, drive consumer choices for reuse, repair and remanufacture; whilst addressing the costs of recycling and disposal?
There are opportunities for producers, waste management companies and local authorities to make both repair and reuse habitual, whilst these require changes to householder behaviour change through raising awareness, they also require investment in infrastructure and logistical operations. Is it time to insist that more products are designed to have longer lifetimes? That they can be disassembled, repaired and reused before being recycled?
Business models providing opportunities
This would not necessarily be a poor strategy for businesses, there are business models that provide opportunities to retain ownership of valuable products and components through leasing, servicing, repair and re-sale.
While it is choices made by consumers that will ultimately determine the success of such ventures, there is huge potential for the reuse of goods and materials to deliver social and economic and environmental benefits. The EU Circular Economy Package, the Scottish Circular Economy Strategy and the national reuse target set by the Spanish Government are examples of governments recognising that second-hand goods should be a good value mainstream option and are working towards making reuse easier for consumers.
In environmental terms, reuse ought to be more common than recycling and energy recovery, with both the financial and environmental costs of simple refurbishment of some products being a fraction of original manufacturing costs. If we are going to be serious about living in a Circular Economy we need to recognise the value of our waste and ensure resources are kept in the economy for longer, slow down the use of valuable raw materials and ensure that products are reused and materials are recycled rather than landfilled.
The most involved reuse organizations are "repair and overhaul" industries which take valuable parts, such as engine blocks, office furniture, toner cartridges, single-use cameras, aircraft hulls, and cathode ray tubes (CRTs) and refurbish them in a factory environment in order to meet the same/similar specifications as new products. Xerox (copy machines), and Cummins Engine are examples of refurbishing factories in the USA. Rolls Royce has a very large aircraft remanufacturing factory in Singapore; Caterpillar recently announced the opening of a tractor refurbishing plant in China. Some factories operate in competition with the original equipment manufacturer (OEM). When the refurbished item is resold under a new label (used monitor CRTs made into TVs, or cameras resold under a new label) this has been found legal by most courts.
When the item is resold under the same OEM name, it is informally considered a "gray market" item - if it is sold as used, it's legal, if it's represented as an OEM product eligible for rebates and warranties, it is considered "counterfeit" or "black market". The automobile parts industry in the USA is governed by laws on the disclosure of "used" parts and, in some states, mattresses which have been used are required to be sanitized or destroyed. Whether these laws are in place to protect consumers from black market items, or to protect manufacturers ("hindsight obsolescence"), is often an area of intense debate. Fuji Photo Film Co. v. Jazz Photo Corp. is a recent example of the war between patent holders and refurbishing factories. To quote the 2003 District Court of New Jersey:"Thus, the key issue in the dispute between Fuji and Jazz is whether the cameras sold by Jazz are "refurbished" in such a way that they can be considered to have been permissibly "repaired" or impermissibly "reconstructed."
Package deposit programs
Deposit programs offer customers a financial incentive to return packaging for reuse. Although no longer common, international experience is showing that they can still be an effective way to encourage packaging reuse. However, financial incentive, unless great, may be less of an incentive than convenience: statistics show that, on average, a milk bottle is returned 12 times, whereas a lemonade bottle with a 15p deposit is returned, on average, only 3 times.
Refillable bottles are used extensively in many European countries; for example in Denmark, 98% of bottles are refillable, and 98% of those are returned by consumers. These systems are typically supported by deposit laws and other regulations.
Sainsbury Ltd have operated a plastic carrier bag cash refund scheme in 1991 - “the penny back scheme”. The scheme is reported to save 970 tonnes of plastic per annum. The scheme has now been extended to a penny back on a voucher which can be contributed to schools registered on the scheme; it estimates this will raise the savings in plastic to 2500 tonnes per annum.
In some developing nations like India and Pakistan, the cost of new bottles often forces manufacturers to collect and refill old glass bottles for selling cola and other drinks. India and Pakistan also have a way of reusing old newspapers: "Kabadiwalas" buy these from the readers for scrap value and reuse them as packaging or recycle them. Scrap intermediaries help consumer dispose of other materials including metals and plastics.
These apply primarily to items of packaging, for example, where a company is involved in the regular transportation of goods from a central manufacturing facility to warehouses or warehouses to retail outlets. In these cases there is considerable benefit to using reusable “transport packaging” such as plastic crates or pallets.
The benefits of closed-loop reuse are primarily due to low additional transport costs being involved, the empty lorry returning with the empty crates. There have been some recent attempts to get the public to join in on closed loop reuse schemes where shoppers use reusable plastic baskets in place of carrier bags for transporting their goods home from the supermarket; these baskets fit on specially designed trolleys making shopping supposedly easier.
There have been some market-led initiatives to encourage packaging reuse by companies introducing refill packs of certain commodities (mainly soap powders and cleaning fluids), the contents being transferred before use into a reusable package kept by the customer, with the savings in packaging being passed onto the customer by lower shelf prices. The refill pack itself is not reused, but being a minimal package for carrying the product home, it requires less material than one with the durability and features (reclosable top, convenient shape, etc.) required for easy use of the product, while avoiding the transport cost and emissions of returning the reusable package to the factory.
Some items, such as clothes and children's toys, often become unwanted before they wear out due to changes in their owner's needs or preferences; these can be reused by selling or giving them to new owners. Regiving can take place informally between family, friends, or neighbours, through environmental freecycling organisations or through anti-poverty charities such as the Red Cross, United Way, Salvation Army, and Goodwill which give these items to those who could not afford them new. Other organizations such as iLoveSchools have websites where both new and used goods can be offered to any of America's school teachers so their life can be extended and help schoolchildren. The average American, for example, throws away 67.9 pounds of used clothing and rags. With the U.S. population at approximately 296 million people, that translates into 20 billion pounds of used clothing and textiles that are tossed into the landfills each year. This has partly motivated movements such as The Compact, whose members promise not to buy anything new for a year, and rely on reusing items that otherwise would be thrown away. Reuse not only reduces landfill inline with the waste minimization program but can help raise money for a good cause.
Printer cartridges and toners
Printer ink cartridges can be reused. They are sorted by brand and model, to be refilled or resold back to the manufacturers. The companies then refill the ink reservoir to resell to consumers. Toner cartridges are recycled the same way as ink cartridges, using toner instead of ink. This method is highly efficient as there is no energy spent on melting and recreating the cartridges.
Repurposing is to use a tool for use as another tool, usually for a purpose unintended by the original tool-maker. Typically, repurposing is done using items usually considered to be junk or garbage. A good example of this would be the Earthship style of house, that uses tires as insulating walls and bottles as glass walls. Reuse is not limited to repeated uses for the same purpose. Examples of repurposing include using tires as boat fenders and steel drums or plastic drums as feeding troughs and/or composting bins.
A waste exchange, or virtual exchange, facilitates the use of a waste product from one process as a raw material for another. As with new life reuse of finished items, this avoids the environmental costs of disposing of the waste and obtaining new raw material, and may still be possible if the nature of the process makes avoiding production of the waste or recycling it back into the original process impossible.
This sort of scheme needs to have a far broader base than is currently the case, it requires organization and the setting up of waste brokerages where lists of currently available wastes are and the quantities available. One of the problems is once a demand for a waste is known or shown then the material is no longer a “waste” but a sellable commodity which often prices itself out of the market, c.f waste cement kiln dust and N-viro (lime conditioned sewage sludge fertilizer). In the former East Germany, organic household waste was collected and used as fodder for pigs. This integrated system was made possible by the state's control of agriculture; the complexities of continuing it in a market economy after German reunification meant the system had to be discontinued.
Reuse of waste water and excreta in agriculture
The nutrients, i.e. nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and micronutrients, and organic matter contained in wastewater, excreta (urine and feces) and greywater have traditionally been reused in agriculture in many countries and are still being reused in agriculture to this day - unfortunately often in an unregulated and unsafe manner. This is particularly a problem in many developing countries (e.g. Mexico, India, Bangladesh, Ghana) where untreated or poorly treated wastewater is used directly in agriculture. The WHO Guidelines from 2006 have set up a framework how this reuse can be done safely by following a multiple barrier approach. Work by the International Water Management Institute has led to a better understanding on how such wastewater reuse can be safely implemented in practice, for which they won the Stockholm Water Prize in 2012. Reuse of sanitised excreta in agriculture has also been called a "closing the loop" approach for sanitation and agriculture and is central to the ecological sanitation approach.
Measuring the impact of reuse, reuse metrics
Determining the balance of how the several effects of reuse interact is often best accomplished by a formal life cycle assessment. For example, research has shown that reusing a product can reduce CO2 emissions and carbon footprint by more than 50% relative to the complete product life cycle. A relatively unknown effective way to reduce CO2 emissions and carbon footprint is reusing products. Often the relative carbon footprint of manufacturing and the supply chain is unknown. A scientific methodology has been developed to calculate how much CO2 emissions are reduced when buying used or second hand hardware versus new hardware, the so-called durability greener network calculator.
There are many ways of measuring the positive environmental, economic and social impact data. These include:
- # of tons diverted from the landfill
- $ avoided disposal costs
- $ avoided purchase costs
- $ value of materials donated
- $ revenues earned
- # of jobs created or retained
- # of families/individuals/organizations assisted
Internalized environmental costs
A Pigovian tax is an environmental tax: a charge on items that reflects the environmental costs of their manufacture and disposal. This makes the environmental benefit of using one reusable item instead of many disposable ones into a financial incentive. Such charges have been introduced in some countries.[specify]
Comparison to recycling
Recycling differs from reuse in that it breaks down the item into raw materials which are then used to make new items, as opposed to reusing the intact item. As this extra processing requires energy, as a rule of thumb reuse is environmentally preferable to recycling ("reduce, reuse, recycle"), though recycling does have a significant part to play as it can often make use of items which are broken, worn out or otherwise unsuitable for reuse. However, as transport emissions are significant portion of the environmental impact of both reuse and recycling, in some cases recycling is the more prudent course as reuse can require long transport distances. A complex life cycle analysis may be required during a product's design phase to determine the efficacy of reuse, recycling, or neither, and produce accordingly.
Reuse of information
Besides physical resources, information is often reused, notably program code for the software that drives computers and the Internet, but also the documentation that explains how to use every modern device. And it is proposed as a way to improve education by assembling a great library of shareable learning objects that can be reused in learning management systems.
Software reuse grew out of the standard subroutine libraries of the 1960s. It is the main principle of today's object-oriented programming. Instead of constantly reinventing software wheels, programming languages like C++, Java, Objective-C, and others are building vast collections of reusable software objects and components.
Reuse of information has a tremendous return on investment for organizations whose documentation is translated into many languages. Translation memory systems can store text that has already been translated into dozens of languages for retrieval and reuse.
Reuse of older software
Sometimes, older operating systems such as DOS are reused for computing roles that don't demand much computing power. However, the widespread of availability of secondhand Windows XP computers at extremely low prices has largely supplanted immediate opportunities for using DOS on some repurposing applications, especially since something like USB isn't found on most pre-Windows XP computers.
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