The classic example of conventional reuse is the doorstep delivery of milk in reusable bottles; other examples include the retreading of tires and the use of plastic delivery trays (transit packing) in place of cardboard cartons.
Reuse has certain potential advantages which can be summarized:
Disadvantages are also apparent:
The cheapest reuse economies are "repair and overhaul" industries which take valuable parts, such as engine blocks , toner cartridges, "one use" cameras, aircraft hulls, and cathode ray tubes (CRTs) and refurbish them in a factory environment, hoping to meet the same specifications as new products. Xerox (copy machines), Video Display Corp.(CRTs) and Cummins Engine are examples of refurbishing factories in the USA. Rolls Royce has a very large aircraft remanufacturing factory in Singapore; Caterpillar recently announced the opening of a tractor refurbishing plant in China. Some factories operate in competition with the original equipment manufacturer (OEM). When the refurbished item is resold under a new label (used monitor CRTs made into TVs, or cameras resold under a new label) this has been found legal by most courts. When the item is resold under the same OEM name, it is informally considered a "gray market" item - if it is sold as used, it's legal, if it's represented as an OEM product eligible for rebates and warrantees, it is considered "counterfeit" or "black market". The automobile parts industry in the USA is governed by laws on the disclosure of "used" parts, and mattresses which are slept on once by a consumer are required to be destroyed in some states. Whether these laws are in place to protect consumers from black market items, or to protect manufacturers ("hindsight obsolescence"), is often an area of intense debate. Fuji Photo Film Co. v. Jazz Photo Corp. is a recent example of the war between patent holders and refurbishing factories. To quote the 2003 District Court of New Jersey: "Thus, the key issue in the dispute between Fuji and Jazz is whether the cameras sold by Jazz are "refurbished" in such a way that they can be considered to have been permissibly "repaired" or impermissibly "reconstructed."
When the distinction requires court intervention in the USA, it is easy to imagine the difficulty in discerning between "reuse" and "counterfeiting" in less developed or rapidly developing nations.
These offer customers a financial incentive to return packaging for reuse. Although no longer common in the UK, international experience is showing that they can still be an effective way to encourage packaging reuse. However, financial incentive, unless great, may be less of an incentive than convenience: statistics show that, on average, a milk bottle is returned 12 times, whereas a lemonade bottle with a 15p deposit is returned, on average, only 3 times.
Refillable bottles are used extensively in many European countries; for example in Denmark, 98% of bottles are refillable, and 98% of those are returned by consumers. These systems are typically supported by deposit laws and other regulations.
Sainsbury Ltd have operated a plastic carrier bag cash refund scheme in 1991 - “the penny back scheme”. The scheme is reported to save 970 tonnes of plastic per annum. The scheme has now been extended to a penny back on a voucher which can be contributed to schools registered on the scheme; it estimates this will raise the savings in plastic to 2500 tonnes per annum.
In some developing nations like India and Pakistan, the cost of new bottles often forces manufacturers to collect and refill old glass bottles for selling cola and other drinks. India and Pakistan also have a way of reusing old newspapers: "Kabadiwalas" buy these from the readers for scrap value and reuse them as packaging or recycle them. These scrap intermediaries also help in disposing other articles and metals from the consumers and is a lucrative business for the resellers.
These apply primarily to items of packaging, for example, where a company is involved in the regular transportation of goods from a central manufacturing facility to warehouses or warehouses to retail outlets. In these cases there is considerable benefit to using reusable “transport packaging” such as plastic crates or pallets. Tesco have established a series of nine recycling service units which wash returnable plastic trays; it is estimated that this operations saves around 50,000 tonnes of packaging per annum. Marks and Spencer operate a similar scheme with 90% reuse or recycle of transit packaging. 65% of their foods are transported on reusable plastic trays saving 25,000 tonnes of cardboard per year; they also have a 3 year plan to eliminate transit packaging on textiles and home furnishing product lines saving another 28,000 tonnes per annum. The same company started a coat hanger reuse scheme in 1993 and now reuse over 20 million of these annually saving 1,200 tonnes of plastic.
The benefits of closed loop reuse are primarily due to virtually no additional transport costs being involved, the empty lorry returning with the empty crates. There have been some recent attempts to get the public to join in on closed loop reuse schemes with the so called “blue basket” schemes (green in the case of Safeway) where shoppers use reusable plastic baskets in place of carrier bags for transporting their goods home from the supermarket; these baskets fit on specially designed trolleys making shopping supposedly easier.
There have been some market led initiatives to encourage packaging reuse by companies introducing refill packs of certain commodities (mainly soap powders and cleaning fluids), the contents being transferred before use into a reusable package kept by the customer, with the savings in packaging being passed onto the customer by lower shelf prices. The refill pack itself is not reused, but being a minimal package for carrying the product home, it requires less material than one with the durability and features (reclosable top, convenient shape, etc) required for easy use of the product, while avoiding the transport cost and emissions of returning the reusable package to the factory.
This is an economist's way of saying introduce an environmental tax: a charge on items which reflects the environmental costs of their manufacture and disposal. This makes the environmental benefit of using one reusable item instead of many disposable ones into a financial incentive. Such charges have been introduced in some countries. Such schemes are said to encourage reuse.
In the UK the Furniture Reuse Network coordinates the work of over 400 charitable projects involved in the reuse of furniture, IT and electrical appliances. There are also other regiving ideas. Old computers can be formatted and donated to schools or organizations in need. Donating a cell phone is another way.
Reuse is not limited to repeated uses for the same purpose. Examples of reuse for a new purpose include using tyres as boat fenders, steel drums as feeding troughs, and plastic carrier bags as bin liners. Incinerator and power plant exhaust stack fly-ash is used extensively as an additive to concrete, providing increased strength. This type of reuse can sometimes make use of items which are no longer usable for their original purpose, for example using worn-out clothes as rags.
Waste exchange is using a waste product from one process as a raw material for another. As with new life reuse of finished items, this avoids the environmental costs of disposing of the waste and obtaining new raw material, and may still be possible if the nature of the process makes avoiding production of the waste or recycling it back into the original process impossible.
This sort of scheme needs to have a far broader base than is currently the case, it requires organisation and the setting up of waste brokerages where lists of currently available wastes are and the quantities available. One of the problems is once a demand for a waste is known or shown then the material is no longer a “waste” but a sellable commodity which often prices itself out of the market, c.f waste cement kiln dust and N-viro (lime conditioned sewage sludge fertiliser). In the former East Germany, organic household waste was collected and used as fodder for pigs. This integrated system was made possible by the state's control of agriculture; the complexities of continuing it in a market economy after German reunification meant the system had to be discontinued.
Recycling differs from reuse in that it breaks down the item into raw materials which are then used to make new items, as opposed to reusing the intact item. As this extra processing requires energy, as a rule of thumb reuse is environmentally preferable to recycling ("reduce, reuse, recycle"), though recycling does have a significant part to play as it can often make use of items which are broken, worn out or otherwise unsuitable for reuse. However, as transport emissions are a major part of the environmental impact of both reuse and recycling, it is possible for recycling to be better where reuse requires a long transport distance, and which is better for a given item may depend on location. A complex life cycle analysis may be required to determine whether reuse, recycling or neither is best for a given item and location. One difficulty is the need to estimate consumer behavior: redesigning an item to be reusable may do more harm than good if only a small proportion are actually reused, due to the increased material use per item.
Besides the great amount of reuse of our physical resources, there is now a powerful argument for reuse of information, notably program code for the software that drives our computers and the Internet, but also the documentation that explains how to use every modern device. And it is proposed as a way to improve education by assembling a great library of shareable learning objects that can be reused in learning management systems.
Software reuse grew out of the standard subroutine libraries of the 1960's. It is the main principle of today's object-oriented programming. Instead of constantly reinventing software wheels, programming languages like C++, Java, Objective C, and others are building vast collections of reusable software objects and components.
Reuse is closely related to the concept of single source publishing in which text written once is output to multiple publishing channels like print, the web, mobile devices, and online help. Reuse of information always has a single source, but not all single-sourced information is reused in multiple different contexts.
Reuse of information has a tremendous return on investment for organizations whose documentation is translated into many languages. Translation memory systems can store text that has already been translated into dozens of languages for retrieval and reuse.