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The Four R's of Sustainability

TRENTON, New Jersey, August 17, 2012 () – Reduce, reuse, recycle – how many times have the three R’s been repeated? Although the time-tested trio has proven itself integral to environmental safety and responsibility, I believe that it’s due for an update in the form of a fourth R – namely, “redesign.”

Any business worth its salt understands the value and importance of design. Supply chain efficiency, marketability, and profit and environmental sustainability all rely on how your product is designed. Honest Tea, for example, began its operations in 1998 using glass bottles, but has since experimented with several types of plastic packaging.

This, however, is where most companies reach a CSR impasse; plastic is light, sturdy, and indisputably useful, but it also poses environmental challenges. Fortunately, there are several sustainable resolutions, including product redesign. Honest Tea managed to save more than a million pounds of packaging material in 2009 by introducing a PET bottle made with 22% less plastic. Additionally, TerraCycle partners with Honest Tea to collect their otherwise difficult-to-recycle drink pouches and turns them into new products.

For a slightly more radical redesign, check out the Kraft YES Pack, a “flexible yet durable” salad dressing container that eschews rigidity in favor of optimizing product yield, sustainability, and ease of use. The resultant package requires 50% less energy and 60% less plastic to produce and yields up to 99% of the product itself – i.e. it is cost-effective from both a production and consumption standpoint.

This isn’t to say that more rigid containers lack comparable economic and environmental benefits. Glass, for example, is infinitely recyclable, meaning it has an immense reusability value and a reduced impact on the planet. Unfortunately, glass can shatter, posing a significant safety hazard. This is where the fourth R comes into play; companies like Pure Glass Bottle have redesigned the typical glass bottle to be shatter-resistant and safe.

'Design for reuse' is another nascent trend that is starting to gain traction. Designing packaging with a second life in mind is a great way to vastly increase the lifecycle of the material. For a classic example think of using mason jars as glass. For a more recent example, which is intended to be flashy and fun, Heineken release a beer bottle that was designed to lock together and create building bricks, which the company used to make a model home. Water companies' have discuss this model as a way to help people in developing countries get clean water and create usable structures. Though these ideas are fringe, they present an interesting opportunity for redesign.

Redesigning a product is not always enough – sometimes it has to be entirely rethought. TerraCycle, as I mentioned earlier, collects both pre- and post-consumer waste, breathing new life into it through upcycling and recycling. In short, we rethink waste. This strategy is not limited solely to our business model, however; we have upcycled much of our office space as well.
Astroturf flooring, walls made of salvaged wood, drink pouch chairs, and a patio built with glass bottles and recycled flip flops – our design team has not only produced a beautiful, fully-functional workplace, but has done so with minimal impact on our budget and the environment.

Think of the fourth R as a guiding principle, one that enables its three predecessors to live up to their full potential. Honest Tea and Kraft reduced their waste output by redesigning some of their most popular products; glass bottles are more feasible to reuse after being redesigned to withstand shattering; and TerraCycle’s recycling and upcycling efforts literally bank on innovative and intuitive redesign.

So yes, continue to reduce, reuse, and recycle, but also realize that (re)design is a powerful tool for optimizing profit and environmental sustainability.

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