Modern consumers are increasingly aware of their consumption habits and lifestyles’ impact on the environment. As a result of this growing collective consciousness (Gidley,2008), movements such as sustainable development have been embraced and adopted by many sectors of society. Today, there is an undeniable need for a more sustainable and circular economy.
Therefore, multiple methods and initiatives proposing sustainable solutions are being developed and tested. These come as a response to the ever-growing ecological, sociological, and economical issues generated by modern society’s waste management - or lack there-of - amongst other destructive habits.
These methods are becoming increasingly accessible to conscious and purposeful businesses of all types in order to empower them to make changes which will either reduce their negative impacts on the environment, and even contribute positively in some cases.
According to this methodology, multiple actions can be utilized before getting to recycling. These actions are meant to reduce the quantity of unnecessary waste generated by your business which ends up filling up our already overflowing landfills.
Operating as the leading principle of the 5 Rs, learning to refuse to choose unnecessary, wasteful, or non-recyclable resources is the first and sometimes the most accessible step towards a circular economy. Although it is difficult to determine which elements are imperative, and which are avoidable, refusing the non-essentials has proven to be the most effective way to significantly reduce waste generation.
In fact, integrating this strategy early on within the design process or the business model makes it easier to make more responsible decisions further down along the line. This action enables organizations to set higher standards early on, and make smarter decisions accordingly.
Multiple examples of initiatives where companies purposefully avoid the use of harmful materials or services can be found around the world:
Big retailers such as Ikea, with more than 363 stores worldwide, have put in place multiple initiatives to eliminated the use of polluting materials (e.g. plastic-coated paper plates and cups) or products (e.g. single-use plastic straws, papers, cups, freezer bags, bin bags, etc.) (Ikea, 2022). This is a good example of a notorious giant in the industry refusing altogether the use of polluting and harmful materials, parts, or services.
In addition, when it came to reducing single-use plastic bags, Ikea is considered to be one of the leaders in the industry with their iconic reusable blue bag. With that initiative, Ikea succeeded in not only reducing, but actually eliminating the use of unnecessary plastic.
Within the electronics industry, and as a response to climate change issues caused by technological hardware and products, Dell Technologies have been encouraging their clients to opt for cloud-consumption models and as-a-service wraps (Dell Technologies, 2022).
By eliminating the use of physical hardware that quickly becomes obsolete, wasteful over-poisoning of our landfill can be increasingly avoided.
In addition, by offering a wide range of recycling services, unwanted technological waste can be disposed of in a secure and ecological way.
These services and initiatives were all put in place in an effort to refuse the production of unnecessary electronic waste .
The next action within the 5Rs methodology goes hand-in-hand with the previous one: in that sense, organizations are encouraged to reflect on what is necessary, and what can be reduced. In fact, making efforts to reduce the use of harmful, wasteful, non-recyclable resources to a minimum helps avoid the production of unnecessary waste. In addition, many of the detrimental resources to avoid can be substituted with eco-responsible alternatives.
As one of the leaders in the electronics field, Samsung Electronics has been working towards a circular economy on multiple fronts to reduce their ecological impacts, particularly in terms of waste-generation and toxic emissions (Samsung News, 2022).
For example, they have been updating most of the product designs to reduce unnecessary waste across the product life cycle (e.g. plastic thicknesses, unnecessary parts, etc.).
In addition, Samsung have been working to optimize the energy consumption of all their new technological products so that they can use up less energy as they are being used every day.
As more and more areas of the world are faced with water shortages, water-saving solutions brought to an everyday product, the kitchen and bathroom faucet, are viewed as a brilliant and accessible solution to reduce waste.
In fact, we can find Ikea’s top nozzles which have been proven to reduce water waste by up to 90% (Butler, The Guardian, June 7 2020). Another great example is Kickstarter company Altered, offering one of the most drastic water saving nozzles which reduces water consumption up to a whopping 98% (Kickstarter, Altered Nozzle, 2022). What was interesting about this initiative is that it was a simple retro-fit solution which can be installed onto an existing tap, all while still offering a reversible switch to turn off the extreme saving mode.
Furthermore, businesses are empowered to stray away from “throw-away” culture. This can be done by gradually eliminating single-use materials, resources, services, and practices.
As an alternative, they are encouraged to purposely prioritize the consumption of reusable, rechargeable, or compostable elements. These types of resources are seen to be easily renewable without negatively impacting the environment.
Children’s and maternity wear are usually used for a very short period of time. In response to this, services have merged to prolong these types of products’ lifespan and to offer a wider range of options for mothers and their children.
A great example is European clothing online shop Circos which provides a rental subscription service where members can rent used and cleaned garments for a smaller price, and to reduce the maternity fashion industry’s footprint (Circos, 2022). The shop carries high-quality clothing brands such as Patagonia and Adidas which are hand-picked by customers and delivered right to their door with care. In addition, once the product is used multiple times by different families and is worn out, the materials composting it are repurposed and used to make new products.
In partnership with Loop Sustainable Home Delivery Service and Loblaw Companies Limited, ice-cream company Häagen-Dazs owned by Nestlé offers a household goods delivery service using only reusable packaging containers (Nestlé Global, 2022).
Throughout other sustainable initiatives, Nestlé is working towards waste-free packaging and developing strategies to fight back against plastic pollution as well as reducing food loss and waste
Also referred to as upcycling, repurposing consists of using creative methods to find alternative functions and uses to elements of the product/service/initiative put in place. This can be done through finding an unexpected new purpose to some elements, or even finding a second life for the whole product/service in a new context of intervention, or with a new user group.
Other 5Rs models propose a “Rot” action to be introduced after recycling. This step technically encourages users to creatively repurpose their food and organic waste through composting by finding new uses and applications where the by-product of composting can be used.
Examples of repurposing initiatives and services can be increasingly found.
Sportswear brand Nike has been successfully implementing its Nike Grind initiatives for a few years where they collect and repurpose recycled materials into new products (e.g. apparel made from recycled textiles, footwear made from repurposed rubber), etc. and applications (e.g. turf fields and running tracks made from repurposed rubber, etc.) (Nike Purpose, 2022).
The materials can originate from manufacturing scraps (e.g. rubber, foam, leather, textile and plastic), products which haven’t been sold, and used sneakers within their Reuse-A-Shoe program.
Multiple Canon teams in different countries, notably the General and Environmental Affairs teams in Canon Canada, hold various recycling events and launch different reusing initiatives across the year.
Throughout these events, employees and customers are encouraged to donate their used or unwanted items. Through this process, valuable materials (e.g. gold, copper, aluminum from electronics, etc.) and parts (e.g. from TVs, monitors, cellular devices, computers, etc.) can be extracted and repurposed, thus diverting them from landfills (Canon, 2022).
When all else fails, the 5Rs methodology suggests recycling as the most environmentally-friendly waste disposal method. In the 5 R’s hierarchy, the recycling step is suggested to be used once all other actions have been attempted. It is important to keep in mind that, although recycling helps extend the product/material/part’s lifespan, it is a labor-intensive process which consumes resources (in terms of energy, time, materials, etc.).
In addition, most materials and parts cannot be recycled indefinitely, and therefore end up contributing to the waste problem nonetheless.
However, to encourage these best practices, it is favorable to offer recycling strategies, services, and initiatives to incentivize users and other businesses to do their best.
Automotive brand Polestar have introduced their new electric car concept with the interior design components including recycled materials. The design of the interior parts has been optimized to reduce overall weight and waste. The EV features bolsters and headrests made from recycled cork, seats made with 3D-knitted PET recovered from recycled bottles, flax-based composites used for panels and seat backs, and floor carpeting made from reclaimed fishing nets.
Recently, Apple has succeeded in including up to 20% recycled materials in their products, one of the highest use of recycled content to be recorded so far. In fact, they are working on further recycling rare or energy-intensive electronics materials such as gold, tungsten and cobalt. In addition, the company introduced various recycling or reuse systems in different countries depending on what is accessible and possible: for example, they have return and recycling services for used devices in some places, and trade-in options for store credits in others.