Reduce, reuse, then recycle: why order matters

There’s a memory that sticks in my mind of my mother talking to me about the recycling slogan: ‘It goes, reduce. Then reuse. Then recycle. In that order.’ I’d never thought about it this way; I knew sending waste to landfill was bad, but I thought of recycling as a complete solution for materials that could be diverted from landfill.

Teenager-me probably thought my mother was being a bit of an eccentric hippy – she was bringing green bags to the supermarket fifteen years ago, back when it still got you funny looks. But, just as with the green bags, the public is slowly catching onto my mother’s early wisdom: that recycling should not be seen as a solution, but rather as a last resort.

The truth we are now rapidly unveiling is that recycling has long been a cover: a way for us to keep producing and consuming, business-as-usual, and feel okay about it all. Those three arrows in their perpetual cycle make us think of recycling as a truly sustainable process of reincarnation: a closed loop, like energy flow through a system. But the reality of recycling is a grimier prospect.


 Image: Shirley Hirst from Pixabay

In August this year, four of Victoria’s major recycling facilities were forced into closure after failing to meet EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) standards. Their operating company, SKM, is currently  floundering in debt. While some councils have managed to find other processors for their recycling, others have been forced to send tonnes of recyclables directly to landfill, including major bayside councils such as Port Phillip and Mornington.

It’s a state of temporary turmoil for councils and communities alike as everyone scrambles to find viable solutions.

Catastrophic though it is to see all this recyclable material go to landfill, the crisis is perhaps serving as a much-needed wake-up call to Victorians about recycling in general.

Just as a ‘garbage barge’ floating from city to city seeking port along the US coastline in the 1980s became a symbol of the country’s waste problem, the mass-closure of Victoria’s recycling plants is now flooding the media with telling images. We are being confronted with the truckloads upon truckloads of plastic, paper, metal and glass that we carefully separate into our recycling bins. We check symbols, maybe even pull packaging into component parts, and place our bins out for collection each fortnight with a conscience much cleaner than our waste.

Looking deeper into the process of recycling highlights a truth many of us may have overlooked: it is ultimately, like many other essential processes, a business. And as a business, it’s becoming less and less viable.

Until recently, most of Australia’s recyclable waste was being sent to China for processing there. But in early 2018, China announced a ban on imports of many waste materials and far stricter contamination limits on the waste it would accept, effectively causing a large part of the recycling chain to grind to a halt.

Some alternatives have been found for Australian waste, mostly through sending the waste to other Asian countries including Malaysia, Vietnam and Indonesia. But reports suggest some of these countries are now looking at making changes to their own import rules.

The truth is, we have been relying on people in poorer countries to buy our recyclable waste, clean it and process it into new materials. And, increasingly, they are finding it less and less worth their while. International prices for second-hand plastic, glass and cardboard have plummeted, increasing the cost of recycling.

From an environmental standpoint, there is also the consideration of all the energy consumed in the process of sending trucks to pick up the waste and operating the machinery to sort and clean it, sending most of it in giant container ships halfway across the world, and the list goes on…

A 2018 government report reveals that only 12% of plastic in Australia currently gets recycled. That figure is around 56% for glass and 96% for aluminium. The reason for these disparities? Again: economics. Currently, it is cheaper to make plastic bottles new from petroleum than to recycle them. Metal mostly gets recycled because of its value.


Only a small fraction of plastic currently gets recycled in Australia. Meanwhile, it’s piling up in landfill by the tonne. Image: Magda Ehlers via Pexels.

There has been some success in recent years with implementing the REDcycle program for soft plastics, with collection bins at major supermarkets and some councils implementing kerbside pickup. These are then made into items like park benches, play equipment and decking. While it’s great to see this material previously sent to landfill finding new life, we have to consider that there is new soft plastic being produced all the time and presumably an upper limit on the number of park benches the planet needs.

Recycling is by no means evil. Although not the environmental cure-all we might hope for, it is almost certainly the lesser of two evils. Despite some disagreement, the general consensus is that recycling uses less energy than producing from virgin materials (straight from the ground). It is also more resource-efficient, giving each litre of extracted petroleum and every cut-down tree a second life as a recycled product.
So what’s the way forward?

First, reduce.

Refuse plastic when you can. There’s already too much of it in the world.

Bring your reusables. You may be surprised how many businesses will be happy to fill up your Tupperware container with a delicious hot meal instead of using another plastic takeaway tub, and many cafes already offer discounts for bringing keep cups.


Reduce plastic by using beeswax wraps to store food. Image: RikaC via Pixabay.

Use beeswax wraps, bags or containers to store food instead of cling wrap. If you have a bulk foods store near you, get out and support that local business. Bring your bags to your local farmers’ market for fresh local produce and take control of what you are purchasing and the packaging it comes in.

Second, reuse.

Consider that things could be useful for another purpose. Glass jars can make great food storage containers, and can be taken back to your bulk shop to be refilled.

Wash out your jars and bottles for a friend who makes preserves, or cordials, or home brew. If you are looking for jars for a similar project, try your local op-shop before buying jars commercially.

When you’re shopping, support sustainable small businesses who are creating new things from old.


A creative way to reuse plastic bottles for a garden wall – perfect for balcony gardeners. Image: Juanjo Menta via Pexels.

Of course, there is no sense in hoarding things you have no use for, out of a reluctance to recycle them. It’s important to keep recycling, but the more we reuse, the more easily we can reduce, which in turn will mean less being recycled and less being produced. A win-win for the environment and our pockets.

Finally, recycle.

For recyclables you couldn’t avoid acquiring in the first place and haven’t been able to give a second life yourself, place them in your recycling bin.

Recycling can get confusing as the rules differ from council to council, so even if you think you know what does and doesn’t go in your bin, it’s not a bad idea to check your council website for detailed information – especially amidst the current confusion when things are changing all the time.

So, in essence, don’t do away with your recycling bin – just do what you can to work towards a future when you no longer need it.

Banner image courtesy of Michael Coghlan [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Flickr.

About author

author Sarah Thomson

Sarah Thomson

Sarah is a writer and editor living in Kyneton, Victoria. She works as Publications Manager for Remember The Wild. When she’s not at a computer she can usually be found battling weeds in her garden, picking up lost animals or exploring the forests of the Macedon Ranges and Hepburn with her dog.

1 Comment

  • dingodreams 4 years ago

    I would add firstly avoid…. as in bring your own cloth bag or pick the product without packaging. It is getting beyond stupid, bananas in plastic wrap (they already have a biodegradable non plastic wrap, kiwi fruit, apples, avocado and lots of others are being packaged up in plastic wrap for no reason other than plastic industry pushing it’s wares under the cloak of “this is how it is done”, it’s more hygienic or convenient…. So, bring your own produce bags, bring your own take home bags and you wont have to worry about the now superfluous bags that need to be sent to China or god knows where on dirty polluting container ships to be “recycled” – as if that somehow made up for the fact that they were redundant from the start.

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