Reducing, Reusing, Recycling Waste… Sounds easy, but is it?

Pennsylvania-based Sustainability and Lean 6σ Continuous Process Improvement Consultant and Recycling Expert Lisa Peterson
Lisa Peterson is an Expert Sustainability and Lean 6σ Continuous Process Improvement Consultant and Lean 6σ Black Belt.

Many times we think about the 3Rs (reducing, reusing and recycling waste) as the answer to sustainability and circularity.  But wait, it’s not so simple.

First, think about all the stakeholders involved across this topic.  There are many players

  • manufacturers;
  • supply chain;
  • customers;
  • infrastructure to handle the reuse such as transportation and sterilization;
  • infrastructure to handle recycling such as sorting and washing;
  • landfill infrastructure; and
  • lastly, energy recovery (trash-to-steam) infrastructure.

If one of the players in the 3Rs isn’t in a convenient location, it can become difficult to follow through on the “sustainability” plan.

Beyond the players, there are many opinions which can be oversimplified stating that one option is better than another.  However, when analyzing the cradle-to-grave impact of these shifts in burdens, we see the trade-offs or pros vs. cons.  Here’s an example I recently heard.
“Paper is better than plastic.  We’re going to convert all our packaging from plastic to paper.”
  • But what mass of paper do you need to protect the product?  That’s far more mass of paper than plastic!
  • Paper needs to be laminated for moisture protection, so the recyclability of the paper is not simply paper.
  • We’re already losing forests at an alarming rate on earth, so cutting more trees for more paper doesn’t seem like the right answer either.
  • The product we are packaging in paper in this example is more likely to be damaged than if packaged in plastic. Therefore, the disposal load was increased due to the damaged product.
Share your examples of challenging choices you are faced with.


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