Can waste prevention worsen the environment?

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Lifset, Reid

Nov 28, 2022, 3:43:13 PM11/28/22

Dear colleagues,


Given the importance we all ascribe to waste prevention, I thought this might be of interest.


Waste prevention—strategies such as source reduction, reuse, and repair—sit on top of the waste management hierarchy. They are considered environmentally superior to recycling, composting, incineration, and landfill. However, in some cases, waste prevention may not lead to environmental improvements. In a recent paper in the Journal of Industrial Ecology (, Maja Wiprächtiger and colleagues from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH Zurich) carefully quantified the impacts of several waste prevention strategies for clothing and furniture in Switzerland. They examine scenarios where the strategies of refuse, reuse, share, sufficiency, and repair are used. They quantify how key factors influence the sustainability of the evaluated scenarios:

• Diffusion rate—the share of the population or industry willing to engage in a waste prevention activity,
• Substitutability—whether the repair or reuse of a product means that new products will not be purchased,
• Effects on use-phase impacts—such as energy consumed during use, and
• Rebounds—reduction in expected environmental benefits when money saved is used for increased consumption.

The analysis showed that reusing clothes in Switzerland might not be environmentally favorable compared to exporting the clothes for reuse because of the way and frequency that secondhand clothes are purchased in Switzerland. Monetary savings from reduced consumption can then be spent on other goods and services, which can offset the environmental benefits of this scenario. For furniture, a return-overhaul-and-resell strategy proved the most successful.

The analysis showed the importance of consumer behavior when assessing waste prevention strategies. It further emphasized the need to avoid assuming that waste prevention leads to net environmental benefits by default. Waste prevention strategies need to be carefully evaluated and designed in a way that achieves high engagement among the population (diffusion factor), high substitutability, and small rebounds. The journal article can be found at and a non-technical summary is available on the ETH website at . #circulareconomy #sourcereduction #reduce #reuse #repair


Reid J. Lifset
Research Scholar; Founding Editor, Journal of Industrial Ecology

Center for Industrial Ecology
T +1-203-432-6949

F +1-203-432-5912


Yale School of the Environment


Neil Seldman

Nov 28, 2022, 3:46:46 PM11/28/22
to Lifset, Reid,,
Thanks for sharing this Reid. Neil

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Norm Ruttan

Nov 29, 2022, 4:10:43 PM11/29/22
to GreenYes
Interesting. It seems to be a variation on the 'get better gas a bigger, more powerful car and drive further and faster' effect we saw in the 1970's onward. In this case 'save money on a lot of CO2 intensive other stuff with the money saved'.

Suggest that an economic approach that disincentivizes buying damaging items and materials would work alongside a push to reduce-reuse-recycle.


Nancy Poh

Nov 30, 2022, 4:30:53 AM11/30/22
to Lifset, Reid,,
Reusing clothes in Switzerland might not be environmentally favorable compared to exporting the clothes for reuse because in developed countries, clothing is a fashion statement. Owners also do not want to be seen wearing the same outfit over and over again, especially if they often post photos of themselves on social media platforms. The only way that they will consider wearing them again is if they are able to restyle the look and there are many ways to do that. Following are some ideas I have been collecting:

-by adding embellishments that will change the look of what they have. Material for the embellishments do not have to be purchased if they can be taken off from one of their clothes
-by discovering various ways to repair or alter to update clothing 

A question we, as parents, should ask is why do we always have to buy new material for our children in their art and craft classes? We should start a re-use culture. How can we make it happen? This was an idea I wrote up when I took an "Open Innovation Course" at Future Learn. 

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