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The Past, Present, and Future of 'Reduce, Reuse, Recycle'

You’ve likely heard of the maxim ‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle,’ known to some as ‘The Three Rs.’ For many, this saying served as early guidance as for how to be an upstanding environmental steward. Simple, memorable, actionable. As far as rules of thumb go, The Three Rs, in many ways, set a precedent in the realm of environmental communications.



Having observed the public’s receptivity to the slogan, further popularized by the passing of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) in 1976, environmental advocates were quick to plaster the motto on any unoccupied space found in parks, cafeterias and offices. Still today, shared spaces boast signage encouraging all to do their part in minimizing their resource consumption, indicating the enduring influence of the saying.


On this Global Recycling Day, some forty years later, one is left to wonder: does the adage hold the same weight as it once did? Surely it continues to hold space in our surroundings, but does it in our minds? Perhaps, more importantly, is it reflected in our daily actions? Whether yes or no, with the passing of time and the environmental consequences of inaction, a refresher seems well in order.


In looking at the syntax of the saying, it is important to note the order of operations, which, by no means, is random. In fact, the structure indicates an order of impact, with ‘reduce’ being the first and most desirable course of action. In the case of laboratory plastics, this begs the question: how might we prevent unnecessary waste in the first place? Second to this, we have ‘reuse,’ which, in order to work, requires a mutual understanding between producers and consumers that plastic products must be designed with longevity in mind and used continually. Finally, once the latter two options have been explored, plastics can be recycled and therefore reintroduced into the system using Polycarbin’s material management platform.



While there is value in finding a renewed sense of meaning in this advice, perhaps it is time that the saying be accompanied by a more thorough, future-forward guide – one that better speaks to a circular future within the life sciences and beyond. The plastic hierarchy, featured below, does this and more. Unlike the maxim, the plastic hierarchy provides a more complete understanding of the material management process by providing the environmental and social consequences of each option. Such a distinction is important seeing as not all management options compare in their effectiveness, just as they differ in terms of their downstream environmental effects. For this reason, we must carefully consider our material management approach in a way that maximizes operational success, while also minimizing environmental harm.


Most of all, the plastic hierarchy gives us a target state to aspire for. In an ideal scenario, those who adhere to the plastic hierarchy will move upwards, from landfill to source reduction, thereby reducing their environmental footprint along the way. In doing so, this ethos of continuous improvement has the potential to reveal both opportunities in the form of cost-savings and operational efficiency, making recycling not just the best choice for the environment, but for your organization, too.


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