One of the foundational concepts of Permaculture is the idea that we want to reduce waste as much as possible. This means we need to find some way to deal with waste in a productive manner. This brings up the topic of the “re-everything” mentality. I bring this up, because while people tend to use the WRONG word for what they are doing, their hearts are in the RIGHT place, and a word is just a word until you get into legalese. Below, I’ll get into the concepts and differences between recycling, reusing, and re-purposing. We’ll also look at the term “refuse” which is not “to refuse to do something,” but rather “the refuse produced that must be disposed of.”
At its simplest, the easiest thing to do with an object that many people might just dispose of is to reuse it. If you have a jar of jelly from the local store, you eat all of the jelly, and then you keep the jar, you can reuse it to store more foods in future. The jar is not modified in any way, and its original purpose is still its current purpose: to store foods with a seal-able lid.
The next level up is to re-purpose an item. If we consume a bottle of blackberry wine (either directly, or via cooking,) we can either reuse the bottle as shown above, or we can do some modification to it to re-purpose it. If we use glass cutting techniques to cut the neck off at the top most portion of where the bottle is consistently largest, and do it in a way that there are no sharp edges, the neck could be used as a funnel for a small wicking garding bed. The base can be used as a drinking glass. This is re-purposing. A small modification is made to allow for a different kind of use than the original object was designed to perform.
Finally, we have recycling. This word is often misused frequently to mean either or both of the above. In reality, recycling is breaking down an object into its base constituent parts to be remade into new products from those same parts. For example, smelting aluminum ingots from soda cans in order to use those ingots in cast aluminum projects. Or perhaps we can crush the glass down in order to re-melt in glass blowing projects. We can crush clay into a powder to re-mix with new clay projects, in some cases. All of these are valid and appropriate ways to deal with some of the items we might otherwise dispose of. This is also the method that requires the most work for accomplishing our goals.
Finally, we have “refuse.” Sometimes you just have to give it up. If you have cardboard that came into contact with food items, you might “recycle” it by composting, but if you have cardboard that came into contact with harsh toxins, you wouldn’t want to introduce those into your system. You would want to dispose of them off site. You might let them “compost” in a zone 5 area around a non-food plant, perhaps.
Alternatively, you might compost on site. For example, you might put it in a compost that also contains mycorrhizal fungi who’s sole purpose is to break down toxins from your site operations. This is often used on matter dredged from the little pocket ponds upstream from a production pond. These pocket ponds are designed to capture run-off in such a way as to grab the “sinkers and floater” to keep the production pond cleaner. These often have a higher density of heavy metals and such if they are close to roadways, for example. Dredging these and composting the reeds used to capture the floaters are both better disposed of by using fungal composting before either taking completely off site, or using only on ornamentals in the lower elevation levels of your system.
So, if you have items that you are thinking of throwing away, consider first reusing them. If you have more than enough of that kind of item on hand, then consider re-purposing, instead. It takes a little more work, but it can be worth it. If you have the talent/skills, and the equipment to do so, try recycling if neither of the other options are good. Try to reduce what goes to “trash” as much as you can, but be cognizant of how you deal with refuse that you don’t just pitch in the trash to be hauled away. Consider mycorrhizal fungi composting where appropriate.