We often hear about the 3Rs – reduce, reuse, recycle – from the simple version of the waste hierarchy (1).
Sometimes there’s mention of additional Rs like refuse, repurpose, repair, refurbish, remanufacture and recover. Many of these additional Rs actually unpack non-waste “reduce” or “prevention” opportunities, and give insight into the particular strategies for preventing products and their components from becoming waste, for as long as possible, in the first place. The need to focus on such prevention strategies is a key part of moving up the hierarchy to retain value for as long as possible in a circular economy (2).
There is a need to be clear about what we mean when talking about or referring to these activities; otherwise they can get confusing and even misleading. Take the terms recycling and recovery, for example. According the EU definition, recycling refers to material recovery, and does not include processes that only recover energy (e.g. waste-to-energy). However, when countries communicate about diverting waste from landfill, sometimes it is automatically assumed that this means recycling. That is how Sweden became known for recycling 99% of its waste, when in fact the term recycling was not correct: A large percentage of that material waste is actually incinerated for energy recovery.
Other key CE terms can also be sources of confusion or overlapping meanings. For example, refurbishment processes cover a range of activities, from simple to extensive. There are major differences in the cost, energy requirement, emissions and waste generation, as well as the value (e.g. price) associated with the refurbished product. Refurbishment could happen in the garage of an individual; comprehensive refurbishment refers to refurbishment that takes place in controlled industrial settings, to meet specified performance standards. Another key term to define is remanufacturing. Unlike many of the other Rs, remanufacturing is not about product life-extension. Through the remanufacturing process, the product is completely disaggregated or deconstructed into its constituent parts; and when these parts are later integrated into assembly, the result is an entirely different product. The full new service life of the ‘reman’ product is ensured by rigorous testing and performance standards that require the reman product to meet or exceed the performance and quality specifications of a current new version of the same type of product. If it doesn’t meet these standards, then it is not remanufacturing.
Again, however, a lack of clear understanding and definitions for refurbishment and remanufacturing has led to substantial trade barriers that increase cost and operational requirements for remanufacturers worldwide. For example, many countries are concerned about the ‘dumping’ of wastes disguised as refurbished or remanufactured export goods, and impose restrictions or prohibitive requirements (e.g. fees, paperwork, additional inspections) on these imported goods. These measures effectively reduce the competitiveness of “circular goods” in the marketplace, relative to ‘new’ ones.
In the table below you can see the CREACE project’s working definitions of key terms distinguishing these CE strategies.