Recycling is awesome. It reduces waste going into our landfills, it reduces demand for the raw materials, it reduces – to some degree – manufacturing pollution (though bear in mind, recycling produces a small amount of its own pollution) and it makes you feel all holy to help the environment, right?
I’m here to tell you: stop recycling.
Okay, that’s a lie, I’m not actually going to tell you that. But I want to get your attention so I can tell you that recycling is only one step in reducing waste and pollution, and that it should be the last step, not the first, and certainly not the only.
Recycling has two older siblings called Reduce and Reuse. These are far, far more mature than Recycling, and should always be courted first.
Recycling is sort of the easy-way-out of caring about the environment, and is a cop-out in many ways. It still takes 100% of the energy to produce the first time, and then it takes additional energy to recycle it. Oh sure, the energy to recycle is significantly reduced from the initial process, but why not save the whole mess?
Plastic, especially, can be tricky to recycle if you don’t know what the number codes mean, and some plastics aren’t recyclable at all.
Reduce: this should be the first step in saving the environment. Stop the cycle at the very beginning – use less. Don’t buy disposable items when non-disposables are available. Don’t buy small sizes when bulk is available. Don’t buy individual packaged items if you can repackage these yourself into smaller portions. You’ll save the package from its very first use, reducing the initial impact on the environment to gather and process these materials the first time.
This means you have to get over some of your convenience, just a little bit. And we are a nation that loves its convenience, aren’t we? (Well, if you’re in the US.) Individual sized things are this latest craze that makes us feel somehow special, I guess? This little packet of crackers is *just for me*… it didn’t come out of the same bag as everyone else’s crackers… Oy, we are a spoiled, childish culture sometimes.
Okay, so reduce prevents the initial package from even entering the cycle. It reduces the pollution and energy at the source, which is awesome! Instead of spending 100%+1/3 energy to recycle, we spend 0% when we don’t even use it in the first place.
But we can’t reduce 100%. We still need some products and some packaging, because it would be awful difficult to carry 10lbs. of flour home in our bare hands. And this is where the middle-child comes in, Reuse.
Reuse: When you’ve reduced what you can, there is still some left over. Rather than dumping this in the recycle bin and using a bit more energy to turn it back into more packaging, reuse the package you have and save that extra bit of energy.
Especially plastics that often can not be recycled anyway, based on their number, your local recycling capabilities, and the type of plastic it was made from to begin with.
It’s a snap to clean ziplock or sandwich bags, – and takes no extra time or energy if you have a dishwasher – and you’ll save both the bag itself and the box they came in by doing so.
Take the glass jar your pasta sauce came in, clean it well, and use it to store flour bought from the bulk section of your grocery store. Not only have you removed the jar from needing any energy added to recycle it, you’ve reduced the secondary packaging required when you buy the bulk flour.
This really is much more beneficial than buying two packages which both get recycled at additional energy expense. Reuse one package, remove the need for the second!
I keep grocery bags in my trunk, lots of them, to reuse when I go to the store. I keep lots of them because if I forget to put one batch back in the trunk, there’s more to reuse instead of needing new. Of course, using cloth bags is a great way to incorporate reusable items into daily life without the initial consumption of paper or plastic bags.
You can even reuse at work, taking old paper destined for the recycle bin (if it was only printed on one side), turning it into scratch paper note pads. An easy way is to cut or tear the paper into quarters and staple one corner, and voila! You have a quick way to reuse office paper again before it ever needs recycling.
One of my favorite reuse items is an old teapot whose lid broke, that I now use as a watering can for indoor plants. It has a lovely Chinese dragon motif on it, and I couldn’t bear to get rid of it being so pretty, so now it sits nestled among my plants and is both beautiful and functional!
Bulk: Bulk is the love-child of Reduce and Reuse, helping you to do both! Find a grocery store that has an amazing bulk section if you can (and I mean a bulk section of product you dispense into a reusable container, not just bigger packaging, but that is at least better than individual packaging.)
Yes, this may mean you need to find a new or supplemental grocery store. Again, we need to move beyond our childish convenience need and expend a touch of energy of our own to help make a difference for everyone.
While it isn’t the case that everyone has access to a good grocery store and bulk, if you do, I implore you to use it as much as you can. I’m very fortunate to have a local cooperative where I can buy rice, flour, sugar, salt, spices, tea, coffee, peanut butter, honey, seeds, beans, olive oil, and so much more all in bulk bins which allow for greatly reduced and overwhelming reuse of packaging.
Things to consider next time you’re at the store:
Skip the bottled water. It isn’t even as clean as your tap water, so why spend 1000% more for it? Buy a water filter if you don’t like the taste of your tap water and buy a refillable, non-plastic water bottle to take with you (glass, or stainless steel.)
Instead of buying individually wrapped snacks, buy a larger bag and portion your own servings out of it. Why spend more money for more packaging and create more waste when you can spend a few moments of your time and do it yourself?
Reuse containers from other products you need, such as glass jars, plastic sacks, or shopping bags, and take these back to the store with you for bagging fresh produce, bulk items and your groceries. It may take some time to make it a habit but you’ll be saving packaging and the environment!
If there is a non-disposable option available, go for that. You may spend a little more upfront, but you’ll save over the life of the product and you’ll reduce the impact on both ends of the manufacturing cycle.
Because seriously: this is the only planet we get. It isn’t recyclable. Our demand for convenience is killing us! So it’s up to each of us to decide which we want: