Problems of Recycling in Sustainable Product Development

Recycling is commonly viewed as the best solution for reducing waste or making products greener. However, there are several problems associated with it that we usually overlook. While good for reducing waste, our goal should be not to produce that waste in the first place. We will also explore alternative approaches that can be considered.

October 26, 2023

Luka Stepan, Principal

The Limitations and Challenges of Recycling

While recycling positively impacts reducing waste, it fails to address the root cause - overconsumption. Recycling means that materials come from completely disused products, highlighting the excessive consumption of limited lifecycle products. In an ideal world, we should reduce the amount of material that needs to be recycled by upgrading and refurbishing components. This way, the products' lifecycles are extended, reducing the waste generated from producing new products.

Another issue is the energy needed to recycle materials. Recycling requires significant energy to collect, transport, and process materials. This energy consumption contributes to greenhouse gas emissions, deepening the climate crisis. Recycling should, therefore, be used as a last resort as it is not an efficient approach to sustainable product development.

Refuse Recycle bins
Recycling as a Temporary Measure for Existing Waste Circulation

Recycling is applicable in some scenarios, such as reducing post-consumer plastics (rPET) originating from throwaway packaging. This approach is partially solving the problem of plastic waste that already exists and embedding it in products with added value. However, our focus must be on developing sustainable business models that do not need plastic packaging to exist in the first place.

Moving Beyond a Recycling-Centric Approach

One of the most significant issues with recycling lies in the senseless throwaway culture it perpetuates. Recycling has become a quick fix for our waste problem, but it ultimately produces more waste. We must shift our mindset from recycling to:

  • Reusing. By reusing, we can extend a product's life and significantly decrease the demand for new items, reducing the strain on our precious resources. Furthermore, reusing can also help establish a circular economy where waste is designed out of the system.
    This would involve shifting towards business models where products or components are leased, rented, or shared instead of sold, thereby keeping products in use for extended periods.
  • Repairing is an equally viable alternative to recycling, a neglected concept in consumer culture. Repairing extends the lifespan of a product, reducing the need for new items to be manufactured and, thus, cutting down on waste. Moreover, it fosters a sense of value and respect for resources.
    Businesses need to make their products durable and easy to repair. This could involve providing spare parts, repair manuals, or even offering repair services, which could create additional revenue streams and customer loyalty.‍
  • The third R, reducing, is the most effective solution of all. Reducing focuses on prevention - cutting down the waste generated at its source. It encourages manufacturers to use less material in product design and packaging and consumers to purchase fewer items and choose those with less packaging.
    Reduction strategies include designing products to be more efficient or implementing policies that discourage using single-use items. It is a shift from our current linear take-make-waste economy to a more sustainable model that values resource efficiency.‍

These three approaches can significantly contribute to a company's revenue streams and value proposition. By adopting a reuse model, businesses can drive recurring revenue through leasing or renting products, fostering customer loyalty and consistent income. Repairing products can open new revenue channels through service offerings, spare parts sales, and extended warranty schemes. Lastly, reduction strategies can save costs by using fewer resources in the production and packaging stages. These models make economic sense and strengthen a company's reputation as a sustainable and environmentally responsible entity, appealing to the growing number of conscious consumers.


In conclusion, while recycling plays a role in sustainable product development, it differs from the cure-all we often make it out to be. Instead, The emphasis should be on reducing, reusing, and repairing to move towards a sustainable future. These alternative strategies contribute to environmental conservation and offer lucrative business opportunities. By adopting these models, companies can unlock new revenue streams, strengthen customer loyalty, and enhance their reputation as responsible businesses. Hence, while recycling is conditionally acceptable, exploring these alternative approaches is preferable and economically more beneficial in the long run.

Together, we can pioneer alternative strategies beyond recycling, embracing approaches centred on reducing, reusing, and repairing. Let's redefine consumer culture, foster a circular economy, and make a significant environmental impact. Let's forge a more sustainable future together.