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Are we focused on the wrong things? Answered

I've seen a bunch of awesome instructables here that show how to take everyday objects that we might otherwise dispose of and make them into something new. Reusing or upcycling is a much better alternative to putting things in the trash, but some of the things I have seen here raise a few questions.

Is it more green to make something new out of old drink bottles or soda cans, or to recycle them? Is it better to upcycle old clothes, or give them to a homeless shelter or Goodwill? I see a lot of instructables here that make new things out of recyclable waste, like soda bottles, aluminum, or cardboard, or out of things like old shirts or books that could be donated. Shouldn't the green focus be on ways to reuse things that can't be recycled or donated, things that are going to end up in the trash unless we find ways to reuse them?

 I don't know if this is a topic that has come up before or if I'm thinking about it in the right way. I'm really not sure which is more green, recycling or reusing. I guess I'm just interested in a discussion of how we can find new uses for non-recyclables, like Styrofoam, non-recyclable plastics, etc. Obviously the best thing to do would be to stop buying these things all together, so maybe we should also have instructables on how we can get away from buying and using these products in the fist place. What are some green alternatives to common waste producing items? Reusing and recycling can only do so much. The real way to make a difference is to stop buying so much disposable stuff in the first place.

Any ideas anyone?


You make some very good points. I think too much of this being green is about making ourselves feel better rather than actually tackling the true underlying issues. Turning off the odd light in the western world going to make any difference if the emerging powers are still burning plastics and feul like there is not tomorrow! We, for once need to work as a whole planet together to tackle this problem rather than little pockets.


8 years ago

I'm going to say that it depends on HOW you re-use things. I just made front and rear undertrays for my car (shameless free plug to myself https://www.instructables.com/id/How-prototype-undertrays-for-your-car/ ) out of scrap sign material.

However, in the process I used a third of a roll of duct tape and half a pack of cable ties. And if it works, every single part of it is going to be replaced by an ABS version of the same. So all I really did (environmentally) was put some duct-tape and zip ties in the bin, and extend the life cycle of some plastic.

Cases like mine don't make good examples of re-use or recycling, despite the fact that I made use of trash.

However, if I then melt some PET bottles and use my undertrays as a mould, it would make an excellent re-use/re-cycling scenario. The bottles are being transformed into something that can stay on one car for the rest of it's life cycle, and then be transferred to another with ease.

Food for thought...

I agree reusing is better than recycling, which is better than putting things in the bin, but the best way to be green is to not use things at all. Most people, justifiably, respond to this with "WTF?". But let me explain- I'm not saying we shouldn't have possessions, just that we shouldn't produce and consume.

If you make an undertray for your car, or a vase, or a desk or whatever out of reused materials, great- your "cost" for the process is the additional fixings and so on you used to build it.

If you make it out of recycled material, then the production cost is greater because of the energy cost of recycling.

Either way, however, you have avoided one of the biggest costs of all- manufacturing new stuff.  Whether you reuse or recycle, one less new undertray/vase/desk has been manufactured.  

In some cases, recycling is worse than not recycling (in terms of energy cost) because the energy required to recycle a plastic bag is more than the energy needed to just make a new one, but reusing is always better than consuming new things, providing you don't expend more energy and resources in the reuse process.  

To use the example Kiteman and NachoMahma were discussing, the way I see it:

Kiteman's option: Buy a bottle of soda, make a plant pot out of it, someone else buys a new bottle of soda.  Cost: 2 soda bottles (material and energy), no plant pot.

Nacho's option: Buy a bottle of soda, recycle it, buy a plant pot.  Someone else gets a recycled soda bottle.  Cost: One new soda bottle, one recycled soda bottle ("no" materials used but energy used), one plant pot.

The assumption is that the (durable) plant pot is a much more expensive thing to make than the (disposable) bottle, so you are "upcycling" the small embodied cost of a bottle to displace the much larger embodied cost of a plant pot.

tl;dr- recycling and reuse is about the costs you avoid by reducing new production.

Unfortunately for you, you can't just force people to make instructables like that on this website. The best way would be to encourage people or get together with others that think similarly to you; think of forming a group...

This is the kind of debate I like, rational and respectful.
I would have to say, remember the 3 Rs: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle in that order of importance. Reducing is first, Reusing is best when reusing an object in the way it was intended (Returnable bottles to use as bottles again), Recycling is last because many materials have limits, like paper and plastics, and a lot of energy is spend in those processes.
In Reusing you must also take in account how much energy, waste and additional materials you are using. And also, sometimes, some reuse projects give me the impression that you end up with a poor quality products that will invariably end up in the trash rather than in the recycling bin, like a soda can lamp, which in most cases I doubt will last a year, specially if you live with someone aesthetically picky (like me).
I must say I did like killerjackalope's idea for polystyrene, a lot. I'm about to start a huge insulation project for the house I'm moving in and will look into what you propose, also I'd like to add that tetrapacks are a great additional layer for insulation, the metallic layer reflects radiating heat and tetrapacks are totally waterproof, well layered tetras with polystyrene will make great air pockets that insulate magnificently. The paper should also add a minimal insulation... I'm thinking attic. Going to need a LOT of tetra for that.
I'd also like to look into rescuing un-recyclable paper or cardboard that has been recycled to it's limit, and turn them in some sort of board, like OSB but of paper.
Any thoughts on that?

Good question.

Re-using is definitely "greener" than recycling (far lower energy costs), and re-using non-recyclables is definitely a good idea.

I can't remember where (on this site) I heard it mentioned, but there was a suggestion to use old polystyrene as a light-weight filler in concrete.

I just did the floor insulation in our shed with discarded polystyrene sheets but even cups squashed in would work just fine...

I agree on the reuse, though I think efforts towards making more use of non recyclables would be a great step, like tetra paks etc.

Polystyrene's actually a really versatile and reusable material as well, not to mention recyclable in ways, were someone to take on all those slabs of polystyrene from deliveries etc and mill them up they'd be able to be used as house insulation in new builds, where they have a big truck with a fan and a load of polystyrene balls that blasts them in to the cavities.  

I did see an interesting thing somewhere about the effectiveness of mus vs. paper cups, a cup has to get 1000 uses to be better than paper cups in energy to produce, but on the economic side the mug wins, you can buy one for 99p and a paper cup costs at bulk around 10p for a small one and 12p for a large one, brings up that argument of green vs. economical again, if you remember the topic about the tap. Or the question of whether it works out in such simple terms. A mug can survive for way beyond that many uses but not in a family or student house...

A year's use puts a mug well over a thousand uses, especially if you drink as much coffee as I do...

Actually, the mug I use at home is recyclable, being stainless steel.  It wins economically as well, since I found it.

Actually I've a nice stainless steel double wall one, not a travel mug they also don't break...  I would drink a lot of coffee in a day but I use the same cup all day, the same with the paper ones at tech, getting a new cup or a clean one every time is effort...

My point was that mugs get destroyed a lot in lots of homes, though my family's very bad for it because when I'm in as well that makes three childish and clumsy beasts and my mum, who is known for just dropping things... 

> Re-using is definitely "greener" than recycling (far lower energy costs)
.  I'm not sure I follow you. If you re-use, say, plastic soda bottles, then more resources go into making more plastic for the next bottle. If you recycle, no new resources are used (other than collecting the recycled material). The energy required to blow another bottle is the same whether one uses new or recycled material. What am I missing?

But the thing you are replacing with the re-used bottle does not need to be made in the first place.

You buy a bottle of soda, then turn it into a plant pot, all that needs manufacturing is the bottle of soda.

.  I'm still seeing a "six of one, half a dozen of the other" situation. The next plastic bottle will require more plastic to be made (more petroleum used) for every bottle that is taken out of circulation.
.  Granted, any use is better than throwing stuff in the dump, but I still don't see how re-using/repurposing is any better than recycling. I'm sure a lot has to do with the material - some are more difficult to recycle than others - but paper, a lot of plastics, and Aluminum, for example, are very recyclable.

Recycling PET (for example) into food-grade PET bottles is quite a process, you can't just melt and reform it.
Switching back to glass is a re-use option, but you then need a bottle-wash with it's energy & water considerations - I don't know about that - what do you think?