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Definitions of reuse and recycling - and their relationship with waste

Posted on | By Thornton Kay
Somerset, UK - There is confusion as to how to define reuse, recycling and waste with respect to everyday terminology, and EU and UK laws and regulations. In everyday language you can reuse something which would otherwise end up as waste, but in EU law anything which will be reused cannot, by definition, be waste. So reused objects can never be waste in EU, and therefore UK, law. However, you can recycle waste by making something else out of it.

This is intended to be a discussion document, so please add any comments or alternative definitions in the comments section below.

Definition of Reuse and Recycling for the forthcoming BS8905 Guidance on the sustainable use of materials, 2011: Thornton Kay's suggestion wording is:

Reuse is the use of an antique, reclaimed or salvaged product, using relatively small amounts of usually human energy, and saving a substantial amount of the embodied energy of the original product. An example of reuse would be the careful removal and cleaning of bricks during the demolition of a building and prior to their reuse as reclaimed bricks. Reuse is usually, or ideally, a completely or nearly reversible process. Reuse includes handmade and low-tech recrafting or remanufacturing, such as the sawing of reclaimed timber beams into planks for use as flooring or joinery. The removal of unused new products from the waste stream and their first use is also considered reuse. An example could be the recovery of over-purchased or remaindered new bricks from a skip at a new building project and their resale at a social enterprise secondhand store for reuse by a customer in another building project.

Recycling is the creation of a new product, normally using large amounts of mechanical or thermal process energy to convert the feedstock material derived from a previous or past use. The embodied energy of the original feedstock material is normally destroyed. Recycling is usually a completely or nearly irreversible process. An example of recycling would be the mechanised crushing and screening of bricks from demolition to create a weak aggregate substitute. Recycling includes mechanised and high-tech remanufacturing such as the chipping of scrap dimensional timber to provide a mulch for municipal flower beds.

Other definitions:

EU Waste Framework Directive 2008

're-use' (sic) means any operation by which products or components that are not waste are used again for the same purpose for which they were conceived;

'recycling' means any recovery operation by which waste materials are reprocessed into products, materials or substances whether for the original or other purposes. It includes the reprocessing of organic material but does not include energy recovery and the reprocessing into materials that are to be used as fuels or for backfilling operations;

Institute of Civil Engineers Demolition Protocol 2008

To Reuse: Buildings/infrastructure, products, components etc recovered for use without reprocessing activities or alterations to their characteristics. In situ reuse could refer to the refurbishment of a building, involving the reuse of the steel frame, without any disassembly. Ex situ reuse is synonymous with reclamation, and involves the disassembly or removal of products/components prior to their reuse.

To Recycle: To take a product/component (e.g. concrete block) and, because of the nature and characteristics of its constituent material, put it through a reprocessing activity. The output will be a material which can then be used in a range of products and applications, including its previous use.

Pushing Reuse by T Kay, BioRegional 2009

Reuse in construction takes place when building material is carefully dismantled, removed and reclaimed, usually with simple tools and hand labour which expend low process energy. The reclaimed material is then reused, largely in its originally manufactured state, and often for its original purpose.

Recycling takes place when buildings materials are collected during demolition to be re‐processed into lower quality materials.

EU ICLD Handbook: General guide for Life Cycle Assessment - Detailed guidance, p343, EU 2010

Terms and concepts: Reuse/recycling/recovery and secondary good
Methodologically, all the different forms of e.g. reuse, recycling, and recovery of energy are
equivalent in LCA. This covers e.g. reprocessing of production waste, regeneration of
nuclear fuels, restoration of buildings, reclaiming or recovering energy, reusing and further
using of parts or goods, refitting of parts for other goods, repair, rehash, etc. To ease
reading, all these forms are reusing/recycling/recovery document, unless specifically differentiated. A common cover term could not be identified and the most
widely understood term "recycling" was found incorrect as being too narrow.
Note that the terms used here do not imply any legal meaning but relate exclusively to the
use in LCA methodology.
The product of these processes i.e. the recycled material, recovered energy, or reused or
further used part or good etc.

USA Design for Reuse Primer, p3, Public Architecture 2010

Reused, or reclaimed, materials are materials extracted from the waste stream and repurposed without further processing or with only minor processing that does not alter the material's nature. Old bricks cleaned of their mortar and used to create a new facade, wood beams remilled into flooring, and wood from packing crates fashioned into window trim are all examples of reuse. Reuse is not to be confused with recycling. Recycling also involves removal of materials from the waste stream, but those materials undergo significant processing to con- vert them into new products. Waste paper reduced to pulp and then combined with pulp from new wood to produce new paper is a form of recycling.

MaryEllen Etienne (Reuse Alliance, USA):
Reuse is extending the life of an item by using it more than once (same or new function). This includes conventional reuse where the item is used again as-is for the same function it was manufactured for, refurbishing/remanufacturing where an item is re-conditioned and used for the same function, or upcycling/repurposing where the addition of creativity brings a new function. In contrast, recycling is the breaking down of the used item into raw materials which are used to make new items. By taking useful products and exchanging them, without reprocessing, reuse help us save time, money, energy and resources. In broader economic terms, reuse offers quality products to people and organizations with limited means, while generating jobs and business activity that contribute to the economy.

Story Type: Opinion