“Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” has become a familiar mantra to many people over the past decade – but what is this catchy alliteration actually asking us to do? This month, we will dig into some of the useful detail that’s been sacrificed to make this punchy phrase, and consider practical steps to reduce our waste products’ impact on the environment.
We should aim to find a use for our waste products that makes the best use of the material and the processing (e.g. purifying it, making it into a device) that the material has already gone through – but of course, we should aim to minimise the amount of waste we generate in the first place. “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” is therefore a prioritised plan of attack, although there are other possibilities which we’ve suggested in the list below (additions underlined):
· Reduce the amount of waste generated (e.g. by only buying what we need, choosing products with minimal packaging)
· Reuse material in its current form where possible (e.g. through buying/selling second hand, reusing packaging)
· Repair or upcycle material that can then be reused – possibly in a different manner to its previous use (e.g. turning frayed jeans into a pair of shorts)
· Recycle material that can’t be reused (e.g. unfixable broken items, organic material). Even within “recycling” there is a pecking order:
◦ The best recycling is where materials are separated precisely with low levels of contamination so that they can be reprocessed into high-quality goods with minimal intervention. A great example is railway track – worn, old rails can be collected and melted down into a steel mix with the perfect metallurgy (the mix of trace metals etc) for making new rails! However it’s far easier for a railway to sort out its lengths of old rail (large, easily identifiable waste materials produced in large, predictable quantities) than it is for a householder to identify sort out hundreds of different types of plastics, metals and other recyclable materials!
◦ Sadly, the familiar “co-mingled recycling”, where many categories of recycling are lumped together into an orange bin, requires complex mechanical sorting and relatively high levels of contamination – so the output might only be used in lower-quality products, and some of the material is deemed unrecyclable due to contamination.
· Regretfully dispose of material that can’t be recycled (e.g. where there is no practicable recycling stream, contaminated materials).
◦ Even for unrecyclable materials that are thrown away, some of the embodied energy can be recovered from these through incineration – although this is controversial due to the waste gases produced.
◦ Please be gentle with yourselves here! We sometime have no option but to dispose of certain materials, and while it is useful to notice the unrecyclable materials you are creating to help plan to avoid them in the future, it doesn’t mean that you have somehow “failed”!
It’s easy to get the impression that living “reduce, reuse, recycle” is a rather austere, “hair-shirt” existence – in fact, it enables creative thinking as to how items can be reused and repurposed that can be far more fun and stylish than simply buying things from a shop!
What can we do?
Firstly, find out about what happens to your waste products – this will help you make more informed choices in the future.
· Bedford Borough Council have some information on what happens to the waste in our black, orange and green bins at https://www.bedford.gov.uk/bins-and-recycling/what-happens-your-recycling-and-rubbish including three very short videos on how the recycling is sorted (the second and third videos play after the first one has finished.)
◦ There’s a better video about a modern recycling sorting facility in London at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_nSfr5uOsC8&pp=ygUXVUsgcmVjeWNsaW5nIHByb2Nlc3Npbmc%3D
· Remember that the council-collected black/orange/green bins are only one form of waste disposal – there are many others, and these might make better use of your waste products!
◦ You might have other opportunities for recycling items related to where you live (e.g. a residents association initiative) or work (e.g. sorted scrap metal bins) – investigate these!
◦ One person’s waste is another person’s treasure! Donating items to a charity shop enables them to be reused while generating income for that charity. As well as the many charity shops in Bedford Town Centre, our charity partners at Emmaus (https://emmaus.org.uk/donate-goods/) take in furniture and other goods for resale and upcycling. Items can also be sold or given away online with eBay, Facebook, Freegle (https://www.ilovefreegle.org/explore/21250), Freecycle (https://www.freecycle.org/town/BedfordUK) and other similar groups.
◦ There are many options for less-frequently generated types of waste:
▪ Domestic batteries can be left in a bag on top of your council orange bin
▪ Books, DVDs and CDs can be taken to the Oxfam bookshop, Bedford town centre
▪ Clothes/Shoes/textiles can be taken to the Salvation Army collection point at Hills School/Goldington Roundabout
▪ Cosmetics can be recycled at Boots, Harpur Centre
▪ Crockery can be taken to the local Salvation Army shop
▪ Glass bottles and containers can go to the bottle bank in St Peters Street Car park
▪ IT Equipment, including printer/copier cartridges can be recycled at Currys, St Johns Walk
▪ Unopened, unused and out-of-date medicines should be returned to pharmacies for disposal. Empty medicine blister packs recycling is being developed; they’re accepted for free at some branches of Boots (sadly not in our area) and trials by Aldi and Superdrug are being evaluated, but they can be recycled as a paid-for service by Terracycle (see https://zerowastebag.co.uk/blogs/what-we-recycle/empty-medicine-blister-packs)
▪ Metal scrap can be taken to the Household Waste Recycling Centre (on Barkers Lane), or even sold to EMR Bedford (see https://uk.emrlocal.com/bedford-scrap-metal/).
▪ Mobile Phones can be handed in at the O2 store in Bedford
▪ Pens can be taken to Rymans, High Street Bedford
▪ Spectacles can be taken to Specsavers, Harpur Centre
▪ Stamps can be left in the box on the countertop at the back of Church (adjacent to the Children’s corner)
▪ Further suggestions can be found at https://www.recyclenow.com/.
◦ Composting is a very efficient option for kitchen or garden waste – we’ll talk about that in June (ready for those lawn clippings after no-mow May!) and we’ll talk about reducing food waste in next month’s article on sustainable cooking.
There’s a lot of information here, and it’s worth stressing that the recycling system is designed with human imperfection in mind, and can tolerate an amount of incorrectly-streamed material. If you follow the guidance in here you'll be doing better than the system assumes, so please don't beat yourselves up if you think you might have accidentally mis-streamed something!
Think about how to reduce the amount of waste you create:
· Buy second hand where possible – this avoids the waste created by manufacturing new items as well as avoiding the waste that would have been created by disposing of the item you’ve bought!
· Choose your purchases to minimise packaging (and distance!)
· Take a look at “The Store” in St. Cuthbert’s Arcade (https://shop.thestoreuk.co.uk/), a grocery store that refills your own containers, virtually eliminating packaging waste!
◦ If you can’t eliminate packaging, choose purchases with reusable/recyclable packaging!
◦ When leaving feedback on eBay, I always compliment vendors who have used recyclable packaging to try to encourage this to become an accepted norm.
· I don’t quite have a paperless office but I do try to maximise paper sustainability! I keep my printer stocked with paper that’s already been used on one side and only put in fresh, blank sheets when printing something formal. I also keep scraps that aren’t suitable to go through the printer again for rough notes. Anything that can’t be reused goes through the shredder and onto the compost heap!
· Buy “seconds” and “wonky veg” (e.g. https://wonkyvegboxes.co.uk/) where possible. This doesn’t impact your own waste, but it does avoid these products being disposed of by suppliers or shops because they can’t be sold.
Think about how you can collect recyclable waste more effectively:
· Put segregated bins (they don’t have to be large!) close to where your waste is generated to avoid the “I could recycle this but the recycling bin is downstairs” dilemma. In my study I've got a non-recyclable waste bin, a recycling bin (for items that will go to the council orange bin), and the bin in the base of my paper shredder, which doubles as an organic waste bin (for items that will go for composting – more on this in June). As well as making collection convenient, this means that I can see how much of each type of waste I collect and hence identify where I could do better (biscuit packets...)
· Avoid contaminating council orange bin recycling with unrecyclable materials, however hard you wish that they should be recyclable (this is called “wishcycling” and is surprisingly common!) This risks having the entire batch of recycled materials designated as contaminated and hence unrecyclable! Also, avoid putting shredded paper in these bins – although the paper is recyclable, it tends to blow around at the recycling plans and hence
· Please separate batteries (or anything containing batteries) from the rest of your waste as these can explode during recycling!
· Fluorescent tubes and compact fluorescent bulbs can be disposed of at the Household Waste Recycling Centre on Barkers Lane; these need to be separated as the internal gas and phosphor coating requires special disposal processes.
What’s coming up this month?
Discussion: Those interested are invited to an informal discussion of this month’s topic during post-service refreshments on Sunday 18th February at 1115-1215 in the corner of the hall. Please come along and share your questions and your experience of and issues encountered investigating reuse and recycling; you can share as much or as little as you wish about what you have learned!
Futurebuild: this is an exhibition of new construction technologies, with a strong bias toward improving sustainability of the build environment, with a conference running within the exhibition. While primarily a trade show, there’s nothing to stop people with sufficient interest attending in a personal capacity (or in some cases it might be relevant to your work or other involvements.) Last year a small delegation from the St. Andrew’s Creation Care team attended and collected some valuable information on products and techniques to improve sustainability which has helped to guide our ongoing path towards Carbon NetZero. This year Futurebuild will be held between 5-7 March at the ExCeL Centre in London; online registration is free. https://www.futurebuild.co.uk/
The Big Plastic Count is being held between 11-17 March – full details and sign-up are at https://thebigplasticcount.com/. This study, led by Greenpeace and supported by the academic and charity sector, asks participants to count and classify the plastic packaging that they throw away over the course of a week to provide evidence to support the campaign for a global plastics treaty that aims to:
◦ Cut global plastic production by at least 75% by 2040
◦ Eliminate single-use plastics
◦ Promote an economy focused on re-use of materials, so packaging can be kept in circulation and out of the environment.
As this is led by a campaign group, you might wish to look at the report produced from the previous Big Plastic Count in 2022 to see how the results will be used – see https://thebigplasticcount.com/media/The-Big-Plastic-Count-Results-Report.pdf; having reviewed this we consider that it gives a balanced argument and accepts that there are situations in which plastic products are appropriate.