Gasp! It’s true, but to not leave you hanging, the answer, according to a study by MIT Daniel R. Cooper and Professor Timothy G. Gutowski from 2015 (link here) is that it is complicated. Specifically though, this is the case if the reuse is not able to replace new materials, or if the reuse is of an item that is less energy efficient than newer models. So, how environmentally beneficial is reuse really? Here we’ll explore the three main ways that it is great for the environment, and talk a little bit more about that paper.
According to the “Hierarchy of preferred solid waste management” per the DC Zero Waste initiative is that reuse comes second only behind source reduction. That is, if your goal is to reduce the amount of waste, your best bet is to not acquire something in the first place. It is obviously not possible to simply stop consuming. Thus the second best option is to reuse materials. The reason for this is that environmentally speaking, reuse has three main benefits: 1. Stops materials from ending up in landfill. 2. Reduces Greenhouse gas emissions and 3. Prevents natural resources form being extracted to create new products.
Reuse stuff, reduce the landfill
According to the EPA, 45 Million tons of construction material end up in US landfills each year. That is a lot of stuff, and as we know here at ShopReuse, a lot of this material is not at the end of its life. This is material that is oftentimes brand new. When you buy a reuse item, you are directly helping to keep this item away from the landfill. The more landfill space we have, the less we pollute our local rivers, forests and oceans. This is not true for every item however as some items pollute more from their use. For items whose main energy use comes from their use, like automobiles or refrigerators, sometimes, it is more efficient to buy new. This is because a refrigerator from today may use as little as half the energy of one from a previous decade. Thus you are better off buying something new which is more energy efficient and reduces green house gases than keeping one that is quite old and is not very efficient. This is especially true if the metal from the refrigerator can then be recycled to make newer more efficient items.
Reduce greenhouse gases.
Something the article touched on is that the importance of reuse grows as we become wealthier as a society. And as our products become increasingly efficient. The reason for this is that as consumers get richer, they often own multiples of the same thing – think of people who now have a fridge in their kitchen and their garage. The same is true, as the average size of the American house continues to grow. If you’re moving to a bigger house, consider using reuse to furnish or remodel your rooms. In many cases, extra rooms could benefit from some beautiful reuse items, giving them personality and helping the environment.
Prevent natural resources from being extracted to create new products.
This is where we get to the title of this article, according to Daniel R. Cooper and Professor Timothy G. Gutowski from MIT, “Reusing an item does not guarantee environmental benefits. Whereas numerous studies have shown that, under the right circumstances, the life cycle energy of a reused product may be lower than that of a new product, for this to translate into a real reduction in environmental impacts, sales (or gifts or continued use) of reused products must displace sales of new products.”
Simply put, for reuse to be more environmentally friendly and actually prevent new resources from being extracted, then it must replace the purchase of a new product. This is easier in construction, because many items purchased only need to be purchased once. But the authors note with items like clothing, people sometimes buy a secondhand textile due to its cheap cost, but also buy new clothes which are cheaper than ever, thus not really reducing their environmental impact.
Cooper, D. and Gutowski, T., 2015. The Environmental Impacts of Reuse . [online] Web.mit.edu. Available at: https://web.mit.edu/ebm/www/Publications/reuse_paper.pdf [Accessed 15 August 2022].
Dpw.dc.gov. 2017. DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA SOLID WASTE DIVERSION PROGRESS REPORT FISCAL YEAR 2017 . [online] Available at: https://dpw.dc.gov/sites/default/files/dc/sites/dpw/page_content/attachments/Solid Waste Diversion Report FY 17- .pdf [Accessed 15 August 2022].
US EPA. 2022. Sustainable Management of Construction and Demolition Materials | US EPA . [online] Available at: https://www.epa.gov/smm/sustainable-management-construction-and-demolition-materials [Accessed 15 August 2022].