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Tree-Hugger Tuesdays!: Reduce, Reuse… and only then, Recycle.

September 6, 2011

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.

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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…

CNN: World’s wealthiest 16 percent t 16 percent uses 80 percent of natural resources

DataBlog: World carbon dioxide emissions by country

Green Talk: 60 Minutes reveals the ugly side to recycling

The Story of Stuff

17 Comments leave one →
  1. September 6, 2011 3:26 pm

    But but but I want the new iPhone…… the chance is my old one will die before the new one even comes out…sigh. Short-lived technology. It is a hard life.

    Joking aside, many of the points you raise above are not exactly that hard to follow. Re-using shopping bags for example. They put a charge on plastic bags in the grocery shops here and all the sudden many use canvas bags when shopping. Storage containers…well an IKEA visit is always fun…. which means I rather buy refills with less packaging and fill up a nice container.

    Reusing and reducing by having storage containers and refills is also cheaper cos let’s face it…. people pay more attention if saves them money in the long run.

    • September 7, 2011 10:25 am

      Short-lived technology… and everything else! Nothing is made to last any more, in addition to the fact that we’re conditioned to buy!buy!buy! all the time. It’s terrible – and apparently completely designed! As in, people dreamed this consumer culture up! Watch “The Story of Stuff” for more…

      They don’t charge on using plastic here yet – but more and more people are bringing their own bags, and the stores are encouraging it, as it saves them money too. Reducing and reusing in general saves money, across the board.

  2. September 6, 2011 6:04 pm

    I love it! I was afraid you were going to abandon hippie Tuesdays. 🙂

    If the US is the 2nd largest carbon footprint, who has the first? I think that was the most shocking of all the jaw-dropping statistics you gave.

    • September 7, 2011 10:28 am

      Of course I wouldn’t abandon hippie Tuesdays! How could I? It really is a big part of my life, so it seemed weird not writing about it!

      China wins the carbon war. Check the link to see an atlas of by how much China and the US outshadow the rest of the world…

      • September 8, 2011 12:30 am

        Interesting that China is the top but it makes so much sense because most of our products are made and exported from there. And just think HOW SMALL of a country China is. Granted they have a lot of people but land mass in size, they are smaller than the US.

        I’m really loving this monthly segment, it truly is an eye opener! And kudos to you for such minimal waste!

  3. September 7, 2011 8:44 am

    I feel guilty. 3 or 4 trash bags a year? You’re a saint.

    • September 7, 2011 10:30 am

      It’s amazingly easy. I don’t even feel like I am trying. Simply buying from farmers instead of the grocery cuts down on waste like you wouldn’t believe – and adding composting to that? Suddenly, that’s it. Hardly any trash. Try it – it works! 🙂

  4. September 8, 2011 4:14 am

    Wow… only 3-4 trash bags? That’s insanely impressive! Sadly, I probably use 3 trash bags a month. And this whole time I felt good about myself just for taking public transportation instead of driving everywhere.

    • September 8, 2011 9:57 am

      Taking public transportation is great! And much more than most people do. I think that’s one point I want to make, too: We should be taking the steps that we can, not thinking we have to do *everything* so we do nothing… you know?

      Honestly, if you have access to farmer’s markets, try buying food there with your own bags (including re-using the plastic ones for produce). Just avoiding buying pre-packaged food is huge. And don’t worry about the cooking – I can’t cook. I just saute, steam, or roast things until they’re done.

      And then the composting!

      Clearly I can tell what next month’s post should be about…

  5. September 8, 2011 6:48 am

    Great article another way to take it to a new level, check out All over the world people are using this service to repurpose items they no longer want and giving them..for free to people who want them. Fantastic idea.

    • September 8, 2011 9:58 am

      OO! Good one! Yes – this is a great site, and a great idea. It’s also along the lines of having a clothing swap with your friends… I am going to add these to the list now!

      Thank you!

  6. September 9, 2011 9:35 pm

    You never fail to impress me. The fact that you write about everything from dating, to sex, to environmental issues, and do it so well, makes me wish I was more well-rounded.

    That’s what I get for letting my friends guilt me into watching Jersey Shore.


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