The fourth “R” of waste management

by Michael Smith (Veshengro)

Most people, if not indeed all, by now will be familiar with the commonly quoted three “Rs” of waste management, that is to say “reduce, reuse and recycle”.

However, I think that somewhere there must be added a fourth “R”, namely the “R” of “Rethink”.

We must urgently rethink the waste, amount and type that we produce and we also must rethink our approach to and the way that we use, reuse and recycle it.

Reducing the waste we produce is probably the most important step in waste reduction and -management and this applies, basically, to all waste.

The biggest proportion of all of out waste that we generate, from households and elsewhere, is packaging that has no other use and either has to be recycled – if possible and often it is not – or needs to be deposited in landfill or burned in incineration.

The field of packaging is where Rethink must be applied to start with, and this will have to be on at least two levels.

Level one is to actually rethink packaging (and the need for it) all together and to consider how much packaging is actually needed.

I cannot, for the life of me, see the reason for electric toothbrush replacement heads for a Braun electric toothbrush that are already each individually “wrapped” in their own little blister to then having to be encapsulated in yet another big solid blister pack. I also know that this example given here for Braun toothbrushes is but one example of such bad practice and over packaging.

Then there are the supermarkets with their pre-packed vegetables on those dreaded Styrofoam trays and similar packs and wraps.

No one seems to have died, not to my knowledge at least, from ever purchasing goods loose from grocers, as used to be the case with grocers only a few decades ago. You brought your own packaging, that is to say, your own bags, your own jars and your own small milk churn and such along, where your purchases were decanted into or you bought loose dry goods and those were put loose, like sugar, pulses, rice, etc., into strong Kraft paper bags and those bags were often used again at least once after taking the dry produce home in them and that was more often than not as lunch bags for kids going to school and such.

The jars that you took to the store to be filled and the other containers you washed after you emptied the contents or finished the contents and then you took them back for refilling.

Nowadays to buy loose goods, such as rice, beans, peas and such, and even ordinary vegetables in a store is nigh on to completely impossible and do not even try to buy loose sugar, loose salt, loose flour; no chance in that department whatsoever.

If I go and buy a freshly made sandwich – not that that happens often – at a sandwich bar why, pray, do they insist on sticking it into one of those triangular plastic boxes? Why not put it into a good ol' kraft paper bag with a napkin, as it used to be? Rethink time, methinks.

Where, for hygienic reasons or reasons of protection from knocks, tamper, etc. packaging is unavoidable we must apply the Rethink process here to designing, and I have said this before more than once, I am sure, packaging in such a way that it, immediately, has a second and even third life after the first – already designed in.

Packaging could be designed in such a way that it has instructions printed on it (on the indiside) that would show people what second use is intended for the box or such.

Such kind of re-purposing has been designed into packages before, such as the box of a media center that becomes, with a few moves, a shelf unit upon which the center sits, with room beneath for all the paraphernalia, such as CDs, Videos, etc.

Cardboard, though the above mentioned was not just simple cardboard, can, in fact, be very strong indeed, as long as it does not get exposed to rain and such like.

The next biggest item of waste is paper and especially here from factories, offices and educational establishments. The offices of the governments probably churn out the greatest amount of waste paper, but other organizations and companies are not far behind.

Much of the waste generated here should not need to have all that much thinking applied during the Rethink process, as the solutions are often very simple. Paper often is used – that is to say, printed or written upon – on one side only and is then tossed straightaway into the waste that goes to landfill or, if lucky, the paper recycling plant. Why? If the back is clean then use it for scrap paper, turn it through in-house printing, and with computers there is no excuse in not doing it, into notepads, telephone message pads, and other such things. No excuse not to do. Just Rethink required.

As far as food waste is concerned, with the fact that not only it being expensive but there being many, even in our developed world, that go hungry, there should not be any and we should and must Rethink our use of food and how we purchase and also and especially as to reusing leftover food the next day. For many this may mean actually to learn to cook rather than to rely on ping meals.

In order to reuse food leftovers one must have a little – more than a little at times – ideas of how to create meals from scratch. It can be done, believe me. All those of a slightly older generation will be able to agree with me there, I am sure, that their parents did exactly that; use leftovers from the Sunday roast, for instance, with which to create the dinner for the Monday after. Now, with refrigeration and even freezers this is even easier. The problem today only is that a great majority of people are unable to cook meals from scratch. They cannot even use tinned foods to make things with, let alone working with “raw” foods.

When I was growing up, being of a Romany family, we often did not know where the next meal would come from and it often depended on what could be garnered, hunted or found it other ways. We also knew what was edible and good to eat from the hedgerows and other wild and semi-wild places.

The latter may also stay some people in good stead should food get more expensive than it is already.

Already because of the fact that food prices are rising we should make every bit of food go as far as possible.

While we want to no waste food, I do, like all of us, that there will always be some waste, and not just peelings and tops and tails cut off from vegetables. There will always be something that goes off without us wishing this to happen. Any such waste, peelings and gone off food, should then, however, not be thrown into landfill but should be recycled by composting.

Reuse and Recycling

When we now finally come to reuse and recycling the Rethink process also must be applied here.

Too many people don't seem to know what to do with the glass jars, plastic boxes and other packaging materials that come their way.

Having seen the lack of ingenuity in people and the only thing that they can think of is to put it into the recycle bin of the appropriate grade, e.g. glass to glass and plastics to plastics, I think that some could not only do with a period of thinking the Rethink but with some ideas and such being sent their way. This may happen at some state in this here magazine and/or as a PDF publication.

Reuse is not only possible without or with some little adaptations here and there with the glass jar and the plastic container but even including some packaging materials, such as cardboard boxes of various types. The use of the old shoebox for the storing of photos and such is an old one, I know. However, there are many other ways of making use of various size boxes that come one's way, in the home and in the office.

On recycling there also needs a Rethink process to be employed so as to get some community involvement in small scale recycling – practical recycling – projects where this or that type of waste, or a number of different kinds, are being recycled by hand and such into new items for sale. Example could be the likes of Trashe Bolsas in the Philippines that make tote bags and others from old advertising tarps.

With the right approach and the right Rethink I am sure that there will be many projects that can be created that could bring money to poor people and to those that would like an independent life, away from factory floor or cube farm.

Such recycling could and should be done by small crafts people and crafts co-operatives, the latter that specifically specialize in recycling.

While there is a place for the large-scale commercial recycling there is a much greater place for community livelihood projects based on recycling things and materials into items for sale on markets and elsewhere. Direct practical recycling should be promoted and given priority over the other kind, as the former uses much less resources than the latter and as, generally, done locally also has a much smaller environmental footprint as far as mileage is concerned.

Now, let's start this Rethink process and add this as a fourth “R” to the already existing “Three Rs” of waste management.

© M Smith (Veshengro), July 2008