Reuse vs recycling – Why is reuse often overlooked for recycling?



In the first Circular Online monthly blog, we explore why reuse is often overlooked for recycling despite being higher in the waste hierarchy and only behind prevention as the ideal way to deal with resources and waste.

Resource and waste management is one of the fastest-evolving sectors in the world. Over the last thirty years, industry professionals have driven the change from landfill as the go-to solution for dealing with end-of-life material to one of the sectors at the forefront of net zero.

Reuse is a crucial tool for the resource and waste sector to use on its journey towards net zero and achieving a circular economy.

Many people across Europe have a positive view of reuse – 77% according to a survey of over 7,000 consumers aged between 18 and 64 from the UK, Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Poland and Sweden, by Stora Enso.

78% of consumers said they would be worried about hygiene if a product was packaged in a reusable container.

However, respondents also expressed concerns about reuse – 78% of consumers said they would be worried about hygiene if a product was packaged in a reusable container and 22% said it would take “too much effort” to return packaging to the point of purchase.

Whereas WRAP’s Recycling Tracker, an annual survey of UK households that gathers evidence on recycling attitudes, knowledge, and behaviour, found that 90% of UK citizens regularly recycled in 2023.

This apparent disparity in the public’s attitude to reuse and recycling is particularly concerning. So why is reuse often misunderstood and overlooked for recycling?

Reuse vs Recycling: Why is reuse higher in the waste hierarchy?


While resource and waste management doesn’t appear to be as high on the political agenda as many believe it should be, the sector has a key role in reducing carbon emissions. In fact, plastic contributes 3.4% (1.8 billion tonnes) of global greenhouse gas emissions every year, which is more than Aviation (1.9%), according to a report by plastic waste prevention startup CleanHub.

The most effective way for the sector to reduce emissions is to encourage waste prevention and reuse is a simple way to support people to consume less. Less consumption leads to less waste and fewer greenhouse gas emissions. In 2020, the UK reused 3.4 million items and generated an equivalent CO2 saving of 123,236 tonnes.

recycling containers
While recycling is important, it shouldn’t be the sole focus of the public’s efforts to reduce waste.

The “Unlocking a Reuse Revolution” study by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation study showed returnable plastic packaging could reduce greenhouse gas emissions and water use by 35 to 70%, and material use by 45 to 75% for selected applications. Compared with single-use plastics in the most ambitious scenario modelling.

However, many people believe recycling is the only solution for reducing waste-related emissions.

Amy Peace, Innovation Lead – Circular Economy at Innovate UK, previously wrote in Circular Online that anyone working in the circular economy will be used to “preaching the message that it’s not all about recycling”.

While recycling is important, it shouldn’t be the sole focus of the public’s efforts to reduce waste. SUEZ’s “Re-use – seizing the opportunity” report found that more than 35,500 items that could be reused are currently disposed of every day at household waste recycling centres (HWRCs).

Perhaps recycling is currently easier for the public than reuse. Rather than cleaning reusable containers, it is simpler to dispose of packaging in a household recycling bin. However, many other items can be reused other than packaging that are much harder to recycle.

Recovering and recycling materials from electronic goods is much more difficult, for example. For some goods, it is much more practical to look at reuse practices, such as repair and refurbishment, than recycling.

It’s also important to note that materials cost less than labour, so repairing products would likely cost more than buying a new item. While reuse is the ideal option, this doesn’t mean it’s always achievable for the public.

How to reuse: Saving money and the planet


Reuse refers to the practice of extending the lifespan of products or materials by using them again for the same or a different purpose before they are discarded as waste. 

This approach aims to minimise the amount of waste a product generates and decrease the environmental impact associated with manufacturing new items or extracting raw materials. However, across different industries, reuse means different things.

For example, in electronics reuse often involves refurbishing and reselling devices, such as smartphones, laptops, and tablets, to extend their life cycles. In textiles, reuse could involve consumers donating pre-loved clothes to be resold in secondhand stores.

Packaging, which consumers are often conditioned to think is best to recycle, is a great example of the positive impact reuse can have.

A report, produced last year by ocean advocacy group Oceana, said a 10 percentage-point increase in reusable beverage packaging would prevent up to 153 billion single-use plastic containers from entering the world’s oceans and waterways.

Driving meaningful change: Reuse business models


When your microwave stops working, you shouldn’t go out and buy a new unit as the first option. In 2021, the UK government implemented right-to-repair rules that require manufacturers to make spare parts for products available for the first time. Repairing electronic goods where possible is the most effective way to stop electricals going to waste.

Another example is an old sofa that could be refurbished rather than thrown away and replaced with a brand-new piece of furniture. A refurbished sofa can breathe new life into someone’s living room without requiring a large outlay or clogging up landfill with old furniture.

While reuse is ideal, repairing products would likely cost more than buying a new item.

This is the mindset that needs to be installed in the general public. Someone should always explore whether a product can be repaired and, if not, they should seek out a secondhand replacement.

If consumer’s habits shift towards reuse, this could also create thousands of job opportunities. SUEZ has estimated that if every person in the UK had one item repaired every year, this would require 40,000 jobs.

One of the best examples of a circular business model that incorporates reuse is Library of Things which allows people to rent household items, such as carpet cleaners and power drills. 

Library of Things not only saves people money but also reduces the demand for brand-new items that most people don’t need to use every day.

Sparking a reuse revolution


Repair and refurbishment services, and reusable packaging all have a crucial role to play in the journey towards transitioning to a circular economy and achieving net zero in the UK. In a cost-of-living crisis, reusing more can also reduce the burden on the public’s wallets as well as on the planet. 

However, there is a gap between consumer demand for reuse and repair. According to research released by Amazon, 53% of respondents said they enjoy looking for deals on secondhand items; however, only 22% surveyed would mend an appliance if it breaks.

There is an opportunity for a reuse revolution that reduces consumption. There just needs to be a shift in consumer’s consumption habits.

Do you want to learn more about reuse innovations making a tangible impact right now? Following a sold out 2023, Resource Conference Cymru is returning to Cardiff and featuring a brand-new circular economy showcase.

Joining the showcase is Cardiff Cycle Workshop who will share their unique insights on repairing and upskilling.

Find out more about this exciting event today.

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