The sustainability comparison between recycling single-use packaging and reusing packaging is clear: there is no comparison. Simply put, the best way to manage materials to eliminate waste, conserve natural resources and reduce environmental impact, in this order, is to: (1) don’t make the product (source reduction); (2) reuse what’s already been made; and (3) recycle what can be recovered. EPA’s Waste Management Hierarchy still has it correct: reuse is a preferred option over recycling.
Advocates of single-use or one-way transport packaging will promote increasing recycling rates as evidence of a sustainable, environmentally-friendly system. Yes, advancements in recycling is a positive development, and continued efforts to achieve an effective recycling system should be applauded. Recycling is also a valued activity in the reuse model when the product reaches its end of life.
However, with single-use packaging, there is an inherent outcome that all material will be used once and waste will be created, and labor, energy and expense will be deployed to retrieve and recycle as much of the waste as possible. By design, single-use packaging is waste-generating regardless of recovery results. Even if recycling 100%, it is still a process of managing waste. In contrast, reusable packaging is a process of preventing waste.
William McDonough, a renowned leader in sustainable development, says “Design is the first signal of human intention.” The natural follow-up question here: is it really our intent to design a package to be used one time before it goes to waste, or even recycled to its raw material form before it’s re-manufactured back into the same package?
We can do better. And the reuse of packaging is the way to be better. When it comes to achieving a less-wasteful and more resource-efficient packaging system, the two packaging types are incomparable. An effective system of reuse to prevent waste will always be preferred over recycling to manage waste.