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Reduce, reuse, recycle is getting a fourth R: Recirculation

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Reduce, reuse, recycle, the way we repeat the phrase B.J. Leiderman does our theme music - but a new word might be added to this litany. The founder of a nonprofit in North Carolina wants us to reuse all durable packaging - from shoeboxes to yogurt containers.

Teresa Carey reports from Durham.

TERESA CAREY, BYLINE: Crystal Dreisbach rummages through a recycling bin set on the curb by one of her neighbors.

(SOUNDBITE OF ITEMS SHUFFLING)

CAREY: For most people, the items in the bin are just trash - not for Dreisbach. These are signs of opportunity.

CRYSTAL DREISBACH: This is a beautiful one. Here we've got glass beer bottles. We've got aluminum cans. And we've got a couple of - ah, fellow fisher person...

CAREY: Oh, is that a worm...

DREISBACH: ...Some nightcrawler containers made of plastic.

CAREY: Dreisbach is a self-proclaimed trash junkie. She's made it her personal goal to put an end to single-use packaging, which she calls the take and trash economy.

DREISBACH: Right now we have sort of the status quo. We extract materials from the Earth. And then we make things with them. And then we use them. And then we generally throw them away.

CAREY: So in 2010, she zeroed in on reusing takeout containers. Other zero-waste services have popped up around the country, like Portland's Go Box, or Usefull, a coffee cup collective in Boston. Dreisbach's own project, called GreenToGo, provides durable takeout containers to Durham restaurants. Customers take their meal home in a reusable box. Then they simply drop the dirty box into a collection bin. Like the classic milkman model, GreenToGo will collect, wash, sanitize and redistribute the containers so restaurants can use them repeatedly. They even pick them up by bicycle to keep their carbon footprint low. At Part & Parcel, T. Land Store's, Land packs goods in reusable glass jars stocked and washed by GreenToGo.

T LAND: Glass is amazing. It doesn't retain odors. It can hold anything. You can see what's inside of it. There are just so many benefits to it. But it's heavy, and it doesn't often get recycled.

CAREY: From pasta to hand soap, everything in the store is package-free. And Land says doing away with disposable bags and containers is worth the extra effort.

LAND: This is replicable. Other businesses can do this. It will ultimately save them money to do it.

CAREY: So far, 29 businesses in Durham, including restaurants, schools and product producers, are packaging goods in these reusable containers. There are over 800 active users who pay a small membership fee. Altogether, Dreisbach says they have stopped more than 20,000 disposable containers from ending up in a landfill.

DREISBACH: GreenToGo - really, it's an experiment in which we demonstrate possibility of a different way of doing things. So we think to ourselves, what if durable, reusable packaging could be used again and again?

CAREY: Dreisbach wants to harness the existing recycling infrastructure to create a new system - a local economy where durable goods circulate endlessly between consumers and companies. Her proposal is called ReCirculation. Last year, she partnered with the city of Durham Solid Waste Management and Sonoco Recycling for a pilot demonstration. The containers are put in recycling bins and recovered.

Wayne Fenton, Durham's assistant solid waste manager, helped facilitate the project. He says ReCirculation has a greater potential to work if it involves local manufacturers only - circulating the reusable goods within the community.

WAYNE FENTON: I'll just say that there are hurdles to be overcome to be able to make it work. If enough consumers demanded it, then they would figure it out. But until the consumers demand it, it's easy to just keep doing what you've been doing all along.

CAREY: Dreisbach's idea comes with renewed interest in reusables. But in order for it to work, the system has to be economical.

Deborah Gallagher, a professor of resource and environmental policy at Duke University, led a group of business students in a feasibility study of the ReCirculation project.

DEBORAH GALLAGHER: The biggest issue was, how do you get these companies to increase the durability of their packaging so that the packaging actually, you know, stands up to being recollected?

CAREY: Despite the challenges, Gallagher says it's possible, and Dreisbach is moving forward with the next demonstration - one which involves the participation of 30 more businesses.

DREISBACH: We know for a fact, based on four years of operating GreenToGo, that once you put in the infrastructure and supply chain to make reuse possible, you can reuse anything.

CAREY: ReCirculation could combine the waste-free aspect of the milkman model, but with the convenience of disposables we've grown accustomed to.

For NPR News, I'm Teresa Carey in Durham, N.C. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Teresa Carey