The 7 R’s of waste reduction
Lessons from operating a 7R Community Waste Reduction Center
Rev. Stephen A. Herring
This paper seeks to broaden the effectiveness of our efforts by suggesting a subtle change from the traditional language of environmentalism to a more practical, application based approach. Our agenda here is to move from thinking and talking about environmentalism to doing environmental work as a matter of habit. To start with, the words we use to describe our environmental attitude should be action words, (verbs) which guide us to take specific steps within our daily lives. These action words should guide us to develop continuing habits of activity.
Traditional words to describe environmental action include the following:
Environmentally friendly approaches
Each of these words represents a way of thinking about and talking about the environment. These words also describe ways of acting that can reduce the negative impact of our human, social, and industrial activities. These words are used in different contexts and they each bring slightly different spiritual, social, and political shades of meaning. As is the case with most large scale social processes, these words run the risk of becoming slogans and buzzwords. They can become trivialized by being reduced to descriptions of ways we think instead of describing specific ways we act. These words easily become by-words which apply to social and political attitudes but which are divorced from daily habits of action.
We do implement these concepts in material ways, but it is a slow and arduous process. In most of the places we live and work these abstract concepts are translated into actions through habits and patterns of consumption and disposal. In various ways these habits and patterns are acted out by regulation, policy, and procedure. We try to appreciate, implement, and act out the concepts described by these words, but real and lasting progress is difficult.
The problem is that we need to be more effective if we are going to turn the great social tide of consumption, disposal, and environmental degradation. Our economic systems of extraction, production, distribution, consumption, and disposal have become so effective that many of us hold dearly to the values and beliefs outlined in the vocabulary above, but we still live lifestyles of dramatic over consumption, wastefulness, and subsequent damage to our social and natural environments.
We live in an age of ultra-convenient disposal. Someone will come and haul away whatever sort of trash we accumulate. Usually this act of convenient disposal is cheap, unregulated, and without any perceived consequences. We just put “it” out at the street and “it” goes away like magic.
Our thesis here is that a new vocabulary may help us to escape the traps of over convenient disposal and to explore new alternatives for habit and action. This vocabulary can be summed up under the rubric of 7 R’s. At Creative Salvage we have built our business on the basis of this 7R vocabulary. We call ourselves a “7R Community Waste Reduction Center.”
Recycle (as a last resort)
The 7R paradigm would begin with our thinking and our purchase choices as we are consuming and as we are in the act of purchasing. As the owner of a 7R community waste reduction center we see a trip to Walmart in a completely different light. Through our eyes, that super store is a huge repository of waste waiting to happen. We joke that “It will all end up in our place sooner or later.” People go to the super stores to load up on waste which will rapidly make its way to our waste reduction center. Our first R is to reduce consumption. We need to think about the necessity and the ultimate destination of the material we purchase as we are buying it. We have the power to do the following:
Our second R is to reuse. Our waste reduction facility in Tarboro NC is 70% funded by the retail sales of items which were disposed of but which can still be used for their original purpose. We run the best second hand shop in the area and our store is rapidly becoming a destination for shoppers from out of town. It is important to realize that any other second hand shop, yard sale, or flea market is also doing its part in the larger 7R waste reduction strategy.
The third R is to repurpose. Items which are reused creatively but in a slightly different way are repurposed. They are reused but they are used for some other purpose than that which was originally intended. Examples of repurposing include applications in “upcycling” into works of art, making jewelry, musical instruments, landscape applications, light fixtures, and other decorative arts.
Repair work is a seriously neglected aspect of 7R waste reduction. Material that cannot be easily reused or repurposed is dismantled into its component parts. One does not do this for long without noticing that we keep finding the same parts. If these parts are stocked in an organized fashion we can easily use them to repair broken items. Castor wheels provide a great example. How many items which are meant to roll on wheels get cast to the curbside simply because they are missing a wheel? Once we get the hang of it, gather the right tools and a good work space, repair work becomes second nature. Fixing things becomes a positive habit and a key action item in our waste reduction strategy.
Simplicity is a key ingredient in success. Simplicity is the best way to describe the practice of refurbishing. All we do here is to properly clean things up, wash, polish, sharpen, refinish, or paint things that have been thrown away.
The sixth R in our action rubric is to reclaim resources. Reclaiming is a way of describing the action of searching waste streams, mining them, and further dismantling materials in the search for resources. Many manufactured items can be taken apart. Doing this reveals a wealth of component parts. The list includes hardware, fasteners, wire, switches, belts, flanges, brackets, and fittings. These can be reclaimed using the other R’s in our 7R process. They can be used for repair work, for works of art, or they can be cleaned up and sold for their original purpose.
Our old environmental favorite of recycling is at the bottom of the list as a last resort. This is the case even though 30% of our present revenue stream is from commodity recycling. Recent publications in the discipline of Discard Studies have pointed out that recycling is basically a means of disposal and it always comes with a serious environmental cost. Ask anyone who has done serious work at a recyclingcenter or a paper mill and they will tell you that commodity recycling is a dirty business. We constantly contend with the problem of contamination of our recycling commodities. This happens when materials are mixed with the result that melting down one commodity causes other material to be burned, landfilled, or inappropriately disposed of. What happens to that cigarette butt you left in your beer can, or the oil you left in the lawn mower when you took it to the scrap yard, or the plastic in the electronic waste you took to the city collection center? It is often either burned in the melting process, landfilled, or otherwise disposed of. If you feel like being grossed out, check the soil at your local scrap yard. At best, commodity recycling requires that material be reduced in one way or another to its raw material. This usually has a huge carbon footprint as it is an energy intensive process.
When our 7R process has been applied to the material that comes through our doors we still end up with a large amount of material that needs to be disposed of. We estimate that the 7R’s described above result in a 96% reduction by weight in the total waste stream we divert into Creative Salvage. While not ideal, this reduction is not bad at all.
Problems remain to be solved as we work to improve the efficiency and scale up our process in order to handle more material. The key issue we face at the moment is that of scalability. Our work is extremely labor intensive and it does not result in a great financial return by most other industrial standards. This means we can’t hire additional workers to ramp up production in our 7R process. Our work remains a labor of love and we regard ourselves as operating a sort of research and application laboratory for waste reduction. While our model is not presently scalable it can be replicated as a form of micro-enterprise. As long as the waste stream shows no signs of slowing down, we welcome colleagues who wish to work along similar lines.
 We are located at 108 east Pitt Street in Tarboro. The facility is open to the public from 11:00 to 7:00 (more or less) every day except Tuesday. We open at 1:00 Sunday afternoon. Visits can be arranged at any time by calling 252-883-7541. See http:// www.creativesalvagedesigns.com or visit us on Facebook at. https://www.facebook.com/CreativeSalvageDesigns/
 See “The Politics of Recycling vs. Reusing” by Max Liboiron posted on 03/06/16 at Discard Studies, Social Studies of Waste, Pollution, and Externalities. Available online at: https://discardstudies.com/2016/03/09/the-politics-of-recycling-vs-reusing/ Further information is available at: Max Liboiron, “Recycling as a Crisis of Meaning,” eTopia: Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies, (4) Spring 2009.
MacBride, S. (2011). Recycling reconsidered: the present failure and future promise of environmental action in the United States. MIT Press.
McDonough, W. and M. Braungart (2002). Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way we Make Things. New York, North Point Press.
Tom Mochal, “The Reuse Environment is More About Culture Than Technology,” TechRepublic, January 23, 2002.