Tree-Hugger Tuesdays!: Reduce, Reuse… and only then, Recycle.
Welcome to the second ever Tree-Hugger Tuesday post here at Women Are From Mars! This month, the discussion will be about a pretty basic and significant doctrine for living the green life. It underpins a lot of how I life my life – and is applicable in many situations. If you pick one principle to live by, pick this one. But. Although you may have heard it before, perhaps not like this…
See, I think the three R’s of being enviro-friendly have generally been presented on an even playing field. As in, do these three things, but the order doesn’t matter.
Actually, it does: Reduce first, Re-use second, and only then Recycle.
- Reduce: If we did nothing more than reduce our resource use, we’d be well on our way to living far more sustainably. And I am looking at you, fellow guilty First World people. The wealthiest 16 percent of the world’s population consumes 80 percent of its natural resources. Wanna get more specific? In the U. S. alone, every American citizen uses 25 tons of raw materials annually, even though we’re only four percent of the world population. We also use one-third the global number of cars, and one-fourth the global energy supply. We have the second largest carbon footprint on Earth. All in all? We use up one-third of the world’s resources, creating an equal third of it’s waste. If everyone were to act like we do, over in the U S of A? We’d need three to five Planet Earths just to keep up.
The thing is, we don’t have three or four more Earths hanging out, waiting for us to get done with this one. We live on a very finite planet. There are only so many things that are re-usable. If we continue to consume at our current rate (i.e. a third of Earth’s resources in the past decade), we will simply run out of things to process, mine, cut down, and use up.
What can you do? So many things. Put on a sweater instead of hiking up the heat. Turn off the water while you brush your teeth and suds the dishes. Avoid buying things that have five thousands pounds (ok maybe not that much) of excess packaging. Carpool/bike/ride public transportation more and drive less. Another good one? Resist the all-encompassing consumer culture that we’re steeped in. Look, I know this is hard to do (ahhh the new iPhone is out!), but tossing something out simply because the next version is here? Not helpful on the using-less front, kids (no matter how sexy that new version is). That goes for everything from technology to clothing. And recycling or donating the “old” one (even though it’s better than tossing it) doesn’t mean you did the right thing – getting something new you don’t need still uses resources and energy to create the new thing. You can’t do anything about that.
- Reuse: This connects easily to the idea of avoiding throwing things out just so you can buy something new. In North America, 99% of everything we buy? Is in the trash within 6 months. Six months! Holy mackerel! How about, if it ain’t broke? Don’t toss it for next year’s model. Instead – Keep. using. it (ahhh the horror!).
In addition, buy things that you can re-use. Like water bottles, travel coffee mugs, shopping bags. Invest in some nice glass storage containers for your food and leftovers (I personally re-use mason jars that originally stored canned food and jams for just about everything). I even re-use the plastic bags you put veggies/fruit/bulk items in – just rinse if necessary and put them back in your reusable shopping bags for the next trip to the grocery. And, for the love, get rid of anything paper – napkins, towels, tissues, etc. Use cloth napkins and kitchen towels that can be tossed in with the wash. Bring back the handkerchief. Ditch the sponge and buy washcloths. In the office? Reuse the backs of things as scrap paper before you recycle them.
- Recycle: But only as the last-ditch option over throwing something away. YES, it is better than the landfill, because at least some of the raw materials can be used again. But – some recycling does a better job of this than others. Furthermore, some recycling saves energy over creating new products (aluminum wins this one), whereas others do very little. However all recycling uses energy, water, and other resources – in addition to the need for shipping. And it’s not just the soda can you toss in the correct bin: All that new technology you just have to have? The old stuff may get “recycled” – by poor in other countries with lower environmental standards.
Finally, recycling doesn’t get at the real core of this problem. First, we can’t recycle everything we want to throw away. Second, even if we could recycle everything from our homes, that would do little about the energy and waste costs for creating that stuff in the first place: For every garbage bin of waste you put on the curb, 70 more were filled with waste in the creation of the stuff you bought.
To conclude, as I said in my initial Tree Hugger Tuesday announcement, the point of the these posts is not simply to discuss environmental issues, but in hopes of having people think just a little bit more. Today, I hope to have pointed out the importance of Reducing and Reusing, and that simply recycling doesn’t get you off the hook in my book.
The interesting thing is, however, simply reducing and reusing actually does get you off the hook. If you reduce your consumption and waste, you really are making a difference.
Even if it’s just a little bit. I also pointed out in that original announcement that I don’t expect us all to do everything all the time. But we could all be doing a little bit more. Pick just a few of the following, and start there:
- Think before you purchase: Do you need it? Maybe give yourself 24 hours to avoid impulse buys.
- Resist the impulse to buy something new if what you have still works!
- Carpool, commute on your bike, walk to work, use public transportation. Even just one additional day a week.
- Buy re-usable shopping bags – and re-use bags for produce and bulk items.
- Turn off the water while you brush your teeth, suds up dishes, or during part of your shower.
- Hang-dry your clothes.
- Avoid excess packaging – buy from the bulk bins!
- Unplug appliances your not using as well as chargers that aren’t charging.
- Turn off your damn computer instead of just closing it, or at least set it up to go to sleep or hibernate.
- Replace sponges and paper towels/napkins/tissues with cloth.
- Support your local vintage clothing shops, or buy smaller additions to your wardrobe to make things new again.
- Invest in reusable water bottles, coffee mugs, and storage containers.
- Only run dishwashers and laundry when the loads are full.
- Check out Freecycle: a nonprofit website connecting people who are giving away things for free they don’t use any more. Reuse away! (Thank you, commenter Erin, aka@irish98!)
- Have a clothing swap party with your friends instead of going shopping.
Other things you can do that make a big difference? Eating local (no new waste in packaging if you bring your own bags) and composting – and these are things I’ll probably talk about in more detail at another time…
Hey, if you need more evidence: I throw out an average of three-to-four normal-sized bags of trash a year. That’s it. This is a direct result of reducing my use, reusing what I have, recycling what I need to (which, strangely enough, seems to be predominately wine and vodka bottles), eating locally, and composting.
For more motivation, I highly recommend the following 20min video on The Story of Stuff…
Links used here…
Green Talk: 60 Minutes reveals the ugly side to recycling