Reduce, Reuse, Recycle: the big picture

The vast majority of households do some level of recycling. For many people, putting newspapers, bottles and cans in council-provided recycling bins was their first effort to help the environment in their day-to-day lives.

While recycling is a good thing to do, the aim isn’t to fill recycling bins if it means buying more packaged products. It’s important to remember the place of recycling in the big picture. We’re encouraged to recycle as this makes these materials useful again. In addition, in many cases it takes less water and energy to make a product out of recycled materials than it does using virgin raw materials.

Recycling 20 aluminium cans uses the same amount of energy as required to produce one new can from raw materials.

The overall aim is to reduce our total consumption of energy, water and materials. The waste hierarchy is a general model that places different approaches to managing waste in an order of priority that reflects their different environmental consequences, particularly those of consumption. The order is: avoid (1), reduce (2), reuse (3), recycle (4), energy recovery (5), and landfill (6). For example, repeatedly using a refillable water bottle is preferable to regularly buying bottled water, even if you recycle the water bottles.

Landfill is the least desirable outcome model. The "3R's" – reduce, reuse & recycle – is a simpler, commonly used version of the waste hierarchy.