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The 4Rs - reduction, reuse, recycling and recovery

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Businesses are being forced to change the way they manage waste. Faced with regulations, public pressure, landfill shortages and the need for increased resource efficiency, companies are moving away from the waste treatment approach and towards waste prevention.

A number of waste prevention techniques are available, and they are commonly summarized as the so-called 4Rs: reduction, reuse, recycling and recovery.

Reduction, reuse and recycling are known in the industry as the 3Rs. Companies sometimes focus only on the first three in resolving waste management problems. In more innovative companies, 4Rs solutions often emerge as a result of industry benchmarking or technological breakthroughs.

The Canadian government has interpreted the waste management hierarchy as follows:

  1. Wherever possible, waste reduction is the preferable option.
  2. If waste is produced, every effort should be made to reuse it if practicable.
  3. Recycling is the third option in the waste management hierarchy. Although recycling does help to conserve resources and reduce wastes, it is important to remember that there are economic and environmental costs associated with waste collection and recycling. For this reason, recycling should only be considered for waste which cannot be reduced or reused.
  4. Finally, it may be possible to recover materials or energy from waste which cannot be reduced, reused or recycled.

Empirical evidence suggests that by practising waste prevention, reusing products, recycling, and making environmentally conscious purchases, businesses can cut costs and increase profits. Cost savings take the form of:

  • Lower waste disposal costs;
  • Lower waste treatment costs;
  • Lower energy costs;
  • Savings on materials and supplies;
  • A reduction in regulatory compliance costs;
  • Lower storage costs;
  • Cost recovery through the sale of recyclable materials;
  • Cost recovery through sales of 4Rs technologies.

For example, Smith & Vandiver Inc. of Watsonville, California, manufactures and distributes natural-ingredient toiletries and body care products. To minimize packaging waste, it reuses boxes in which it has received shipments by recutting the cardboard into smaller cartons. Its waste reduction program has enabled the company to reduce its inventory of shipper cartons, saving both storage space and $20,000 a year in material costs.

In China, organic waste from thousands of small straw pulp mills is used as agricultural fertilizer.

Kraft General Foods in Tulare, California manufactures processed and natural cheese, and pre-baked bread shells. Its waste reduction program has not only reduced solid waste disposal fees, but generates some $40,000 a year from the sale of recyclable materials.

In Kalundborg, Denmark, a coal-fired power station, an oil refinery, a plasterboard factory, a pharmaceutical plant and the municipality have created an 'industrial symbiosis' by exploiting each other's waste streams. (See 'Kalundborg' case study.)

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