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Leveraging the Three Rs to Benefit Your Bottom Line

October 18, 2023

Although the exact origin of the “Three Rs”—Reduce, Reuse and Recycle—is somewhat unclear, it is believed that the phrase was popularized by the environmental movement of the 1970s to deter waste generation and incentivize conservation efforts. Today, that sentiment still holds, and the Three Rs are widely accepted as a key part of environmental stewardship and as a guiding force behind effective sustainability for individuals and the masses. But using the Three Rs isn’t only a powerful tool in an ecological sense. In fact, it goes far in an economical sense too, especially for businesses.

By following the Three Rs, businesses can do more than better their environmental performances—they can create value from their waste, turning what was once a liability into an asset.


The Three Rs at Work

The First R: Reduction

Businesses can reduce the number of products that reach a true end-of-life stage. How? By designing them for durability and recyclability. It comes down to using materials that can be easily repurposed or reprocessed and manufacturing them in a way that allows for their easy disassembly, repair and enhancement. In fact, doing so might be required by law sooner or later.

Another way they can practice reduction is through the volume of packaging used. This, once again, involves some creative design work. Constructing and utilizing packaging that can be made from recycled materials, nested or stacked efficiently, and eventually reused cuts out waste and the need for virgin resources by a large margin.

But companies can reduce the amount of energy it takes to make these products and packaging, and the amount of energy the products themselves use too. This can be accomplished by sourcing better, more energy-efficient equipment and improving the design, materials and creation process used in products, packaging and even the facilities in which they’re made and stored. Going a step further, companies can implement renewable energy functionality throughout operations.

Direct Value Creation:
By reducing the amount of waste materials that are generated in the first place, and the amount of energy that is lost or misused throughout manufacturing, businesses can save money on disposal and energy costs.


The Second R: Reuse

Businesses can also reuse materials in the manufacturing process to create value. This can be done by finding alternative uses for packaging and shipping materials, and using closed-loop systems that return resources to the supply chain as inputs for another systems of production. Recovered oil, for example, can be redistributed as lubricants to equipment or components to other products; recovered water can be used to clean sites or cool machinery, or even be returned to the natural water cycle.

Equipment and machinery themselves can deliver benefits through reuse. Buying devices and pieces that are refurbished rather than new, maintaining them properly and extending their longevity through upgrades and repairs can save costs significantly.

Getting creative with the space these devices (and the products and materials they produce) occupy can do the same. Utilizing vertical storage systems, optimizing picking and packing routes, and cross-docking products whenever possible are powerful ways to ensure limited areas serve several purposes. It’s a bit of a technicality, but it’s still a means by which reuse comes into play for the warehousing side of operations.

Direct Value Creation:
By reusing waste materials, devices and spaces, businesses can save money on raw material, equipment and manpower, and storage costs.


The Third R: Recycling

Businesses usually have a lot more opportunities to create value through recycling than they do through the first two Rs. Often, waste is unavoidable and unusable even under ideal reduction and reuse efforts—at least, without undergoing some kind of processing.

Perhaps the most obvious examples of this are metal scraps, mixed plastic and paper, and a variety of other byproducts that result from product creation and serve little to no purpose in their current state. Putting them through metal recovery or plastic de-packaging systems, for example, is what enables them to be broken down and reconstructed into useful materials again for production or for sale to other markets.

But for a company to truly capitalize on recycling, they need to examine the whole of their business. Areas like the warehouse and employee spaces offer plenty of opportunities. Recycling cardboard boxes, plastic wrap, and other shipping and storage materials can save big and generate new revenue streams, as can recycling plastic bottles, metal cans, carboard containers and other common waste materials individuals generate.

Direct Value Creation:
By recycling waste materials, businesses can save on raw material costs and open new revenue streams via material resale.


The Lesser-Known Fourth R: Recovery

Beyond the point of recycling, there can still be waste that remains. These are the materials that are truly deemed to have “unsalvageable” components. Some examples include pharmaceutical, medical, agricultural and industrial waste materials that are too complex, too sensitive or too dangerous to undergo any process other than final disposal. In these situations, businesses can opt to recover the energy stored in these materials which can then power their operations, be sold to other markets or be redistributed to their communities.

Some common methods are alternative fuel engineering, which sorts, shreds and treats waste to become a low-carbon propellant for kilns and power plants; waste-to-energy processing, which sorts and incinerates waste to generate renewable steam and electricity; and anaerobic digestion, which utilizes microorganisms to break down biodegradable material in the absence of oxygen to create biogas.

Direct Value Creation:
By recovering energy from waste in the form of fuel, steam, electricity and / or biogas, businesses can achieve a zero waste-to-landfill status, close the loop on their operations, save energy costs and open new revenue streams.


Creating Additional Value

While each of the Four Rs has its own strong suit in direct financial savings and returns, there are a number of indirect financial benefits that can come from any of the lot. These benefits that ultimately impact a business’s bottom line and drive powerful sustainability stories include:

  • An Improved Reputation:
    Customers are increasingly looking to do business with companies that are committed to sustainability. By creating value from their waste materials, businesses can demonstrate their commitment to the environment and improve their reputation among customers.

  • A Workplace that Attracts and Retains Talent:
    Employees are also increasingly looking to work for companies that are committed to sustainability. By creating value from their waste materials, businesses can attract and retain top talent.

  • A Higher Valuation:
    Investors and legislators are giving far greater attention to companies that participate in ESG. Those who do not are considered liabilities and may face penalties instead of a climbing stock price, tax breaks and / or grants.

  • A Competitive Advantage:
    Businesses that are able to create value from their waste materials are often more efficient and profitable than their competitors. This can give them a competitive advantage in the marketplace.

But creating business value through the Four Rs and reaping all of their direct and indirect benefits are easier said than done. The real challenge isn’t always identifying what can be done but is more often a matter of identifying how it can be done—particularly in a reliable and cost-effective way.

In truth, a lot of it boils down to partnering with the right sustainable solutions provider. They’ll know the best way to integrate the Four Rs into any business, and will help develop a strategy and action plan that creates value based on that business’s unique needs.

For a glimpse at how ReworldTM leverages its expansive network and capabilities to do just that, take a look at our related article: How Goods and Commodities Producers Create Value from Waste.


A major source of net carbon negative energy

8 acquisitions
For each ton of waste we recover for energy, Covanta saves 1 ton of CO2 equivalents (CO2e). In 2022, we avoided 19 million metric tons of CO2e.

A major source of net carbon negative energy

8 acquisitions
For each ton of waste we recover for energy, Covanta saves 1 ton of CO2 equivalents (CO2e). In 2022, we avoided 19 million metric tons of CO2e.

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