Reduce. Reuse. Recycle.
Most of us will remember this mantra from as early as elementary school, marking our introduction into environmentalism and sustainability in general. Depending on its enforcement beyond our initial exposure, this mantra may or may not have been successful in shaping our identity.
As we know from modern anecdotes of micro-plastics collecting in the Pacific Ocean—and the tragic suffering of marine life as a result—it’s safe to say that we haven’t quite embodied the Three R’s as a society. Or, at the very least, we could do much, much better.
Part of the reason is that the hierarchy of the Three R’s got lost along the way. This isn’t any one person’s fault but is the result of a culture that has embraced the path of least resistance, or, in this case, the path of least effort.
As you probably know, our culture predominantly focuses on the third R, Recycle, while simultaneously forgetting that recycling is our last line of defense in the sustainability model. (The order, as written above, was always essential to its message.) And yet, if you take a look at most of our environmental behaviors over the years, it would be reasonable to say that recycling is at the front-and-center of our sustainability action plan.
In the wake of Western society sailing steadily toward increasing environmental degradation, I’d like to take a moment to revive the Three R’s paradigm and help highlight why it might be a good idea to go back to square one (and two). Then I’ll share some tips on how we can all do a little better to help turn the ship.
Common recycling myths
It’s easy to understand the appeal of recycling.
Since I know what is recyclable, I might be tempted to believe that there’s nothing wrong with buying my water in plastic bottles or taking advantage of vegetables that have been conveniently sliced and stored in air-tight containers. After all, as long as I send my plastics to the right places, I’m in the clear, right?
Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.
For starters, the quality of plastic deteriorates over time. And quite quickly at that. It’s a common misconception that when we recycle a plastic water bottle, it returns to water bottle after water bottle for the next 400 years. In reality, the plastic the makes up that container can only stand to be repurposed 2-3 times before its chemical bonds become un-reusable.
Additionally, contrary to our deepest fantasies of environmental technology, most recycling facilities don’t process multi-material items, even if each of its components is entirely recyclable. Take To-Go coffee cups. At first glance, it seems like a no-brainer that these are recyclable. They’re made of paper, right? True. But that’s not the whole story. If you run your finger along the inside of your (emphasis on empty) Starbucks cup, you’ll notice the thin, insulating plastic that keeps your brew steamy. Unfortunately, this also means that–unless you pealed that film off beforehand–when that cup reaches the recycling plant, it gets sent to a pile of multi-material rejects that ultimately end up in the landfill.
There are some simpler, but still overlooked, issues with recycling. If you haven’t rinsed out your milk jug; if you’re using one of those plant-based plastic forks; if your local recycling plant doesn’t process a specific type of plastic (marked by those 1-7 numbers inside the Recycle symbol). All of these are grounds for your item being redirected to the landfill, days or weeks after you’ve wiped your conscience clean according to your Three R’s education.
Immediately, this can feel disheartening, frustrating, and even annoying. Even if we want to be better, we might feel like we’ve been set up to fail by social mechanisms that don’t correlate with our education.
Luckily, that’s not the end of the road. There are actions we can take that can get us back on the right track.
Back to basics: reduce and reuse
One of the funniest environmentalist mottos to me is “Think Global, Act Local.” Not that it’s coming from a bad place, but have you ever tried thinking globally? It’s the fastest way to feel small, insignificant, and even powerless. How could I possibly make a difference?
There’s no need to feel this way. The best thing we can do is go back to the basics. Those other two R’s are a guiding light when you feel your agency slipping away.
Reduce. The reason this is so important is that manufacturing goods requires energy. Turning petroleum into Polyethylene terephthalate (PET)—the kind of plastic used to make water bottles—is no small task. Neither is cutting down trees for particle board furniture or mining mineral ores for the precious metals that fuel our electronic devices. The supermajority of that energy (or electricity) still comes from burning fossil fuels. So, in a sense, a plastic water bottle is a double-petroleum byproduct, once in material and once in manufacture. We can ease the gas (no pun intended) on the carbon emission outputs by reducing our purchases of newly manufactured goods.
We can’t wholly escape the burning of fossil fuels to produce our energy needs, but we can help influence our collective energy spending. And that starts with demanding fewer newer goods and when we do make new purchases, buying from better brands that are working to reduce the burden in one form or another.
Reuse. We can also benefit from shifting our orientation from single-use to re-use. Whenever we buy something that has a built-in single-use, we are exacerbating the demand to create more of that item. This brings us right back to energy-intensive living. On the other hand, if we prioritize goods that are durable or fulfill multiple functions, we’re helping to relieve this pressure on production.
I am always fascinated when I see furniture in an antique store. I’ve come across desks, chairs, cabinets, and bookshelves that are literally a hundred years old. While antiques might not be everyone’s taste, it’s incredible to see the craftsmanship that has been able to withstand a century of environmental factors. Last week, I knocked over my friend’s IKEA chair, and one of its legs splintered. Do you see the difference?
There is no doubt that we live in an age of abundance. So many options, from clothing and cars to laptops, jewelry, makeup, and shoulder bags. This can be a great thing. But it can also be harmful when we sacrifice quality for quantity.
Reduce and Reuse are about reconfiguring our priorities to improve the quality of our lives for now and the foreseeable future. Here are some insights into how we might improve our sustainable habits.
A few small changes
We can all get by with a little less. All of us, myself included, have a handful of items lying around the house that we just don’t use anymore. Maybe it’s some old sweaters you know you don’t wear or a few books that you may or may not have read, but you have a friend that could benefit from an excellent read. We can benefit from freeing up some space in our lives and making room for more quality experiences.
You can even use the Reduce principle as a character-building technique if you’ve got kids. Even once a year, you and your children can go through your respective belongings and see what you do and don’t use anymore. Show your kids how getting rid of an old toy (and donating to a charity store or passing on to a friend) makes room for something new—whether it’s in time for their birthday or a space to display a drawing that they’re proud of.
Be honest with yourself. Let this exercise be as powerful or as insignificant as you need it to be, but make some space for newness in your life and try to keep it that way. It is likely to have positive effects on your mental health, too. You might even realize you don’t need as much stuff as you thought and come to appreciate the newly rediscovered space on your shelf.
The Reuse principle is an exercise in sustainability, but also in creativity. Most of us probably have a jar of preserves somewhere in the back of our fridge, not going bad. When that sweet nectar is gone, why not use the jar for making a salad dressing and then sealing it off and keeping it fresh for the week? You couldn’t have gotten this extra utility out of a plastic bottle, and you’ll appreciate the many uses you can get out of a glass container. (I promise, once you remove the gaudy label, all glass jars become 100% more beautiful.)
There are also economic benefits to the Reuse lifestyle. I can’t remember the last time I bought Tupperware since I discovered the many new uses for the glass I was already “buying” when I purchased its original contents. Drinking cups, spare change jars, planting pots, arts and crafts, decoration – the list of uses goes on. Using what we already have around the house helps us free up space and save some extra dollars in the process.
You don’t just have to Reuse your own gadgets either. The next time you need to install some curtains, considering asking a friend for their ladder and drill, and return the favor when they need a food processor!
This could also be a great way to become more acquainted with that neighbor you’ve passed a dozen times on the stairs. You can build a friendly relationship this way, even increasing your sense of security in your home, knowing you’re surrounded by lovely people (which, I guarantee is predominantly true).
Finally, when in doubt, and you just have to buy something new, consider giving your business to a shop or brand that shares your sustainable values. It’s becoming easier to find stores where you fill your own bags with dried goods or that offer unique clothing or accessories made out of recycled materials. Make a quick Google search. It shouldn’t take long for you to find someone upholding sustainable practices in your area.
Don’t waste your waste!
Waste plays a vital role in our lives. It’s a biological byproduct of nearly all natural processes. We are grateful for the ways in which the earth’s processes are perfectly suited for many of our needs. But there’s no necessary function to living wastefully.
When we have more appreciation for the energy that goes into the many things that make our modern lives so wonderful, we can get more out of our experiences with those things.