Reduce & Reuse: The Forgotten Siblings of Recycling
Growing up in the late-90s and early-2000s I repeatedly heard the mantra, “Reduce, reuse, recycle.” It was said on PSAs, and its triangular logo was printed on the back of many products and on stickers. It was basically ubiquitous back then. But recently, it just occurred to me that I’ve only heard about the importance of recycling for about the past decade.
The Root of the Problem
It’s pretty obvious that this is at least partially due to the impulsive, “convenience over all else,” “must have the latest product” nature of the US. The problem with reducing and reusing is that these are concepts that are antithetical to the bottom line of many businesses and the overall “gotta have it” culture that permeates throughout the country.
However, recycling provides an easy and convenient fix for our overconsumption problem. You don’t have to reduce and reuse if it’s going to be recycled into the next product you’re going to buy anyway. What’s the harm?
The Problems With Recycling
The harm is that we are relying on everyone to actually recycle and that our recycling is properly recycled. How many times have you seen someone throw a piece of trash or a dirty container into a recycling bin? Some people throw certain items into the recycling bin because they feel like it’s an item that should be recycled but they are unsure. This is referred to as wishful or aspirational recycling.
Even worse, it might not matter if recycling is perfectly separated. According to the Guardian, many cities all over the US are no longer recycling a variety of plastics. Instead, they are being stockpiled, burned, or thrown into landfills. Turns out, China was a major buyer of US recycling, and they stopped doing so in 2017. Now about 44% of previously exported plastic recycling has nowhere to go.
Recycling is more problematic than most of society realizes. The intentions are good, but most people don’t actually think about the process behind recycling. The feeling of “just doing their part” is enough. They just trust the process without worrying about knowing the pesky little details.
Remember when the truth about tech recycling programs in the US actually ending up in Asian countries came out a few years ago? We were all outraged that our recyclables were being sent to another country and that people were working on our waste in terribly unsafe and unhealthy conditions. But that hasn’t been resolved, just forgotten as about one-third of our tech waste continues to be sent to Asia.
That’s what made reduce, reuse, recycle so powerful. When done in conjunction, they made up for each other’s pitfalls. If we reduce and reuse, we won’t have to get rid of as much waste later on. The mantra was actually said in order of best practices. Reducing prevents the creation of waste altogether. Reusing lessens that amount of waste, and recycling gives the waste we cannot prevent new life. But the cycle has been broken for many years, only favoring one-part over the other two.
To be fair, reduce and reuse haven’t completely disappeared. Among the climate-conscious, the concept is still alive and well. This fact isn’t lost on many companies who try to capitalize on climate awareness’ popularity. Some companies do try to reduce the use of unnecessary packaging, which is a win-win for them and the environment. They get to market that they are environmentally aware and reduce waste, all while saving some money on additional materials.
However, I think it’s important to make the trio as ubiquitous as it was 20 years ago. It seems to me that the idea of “recycling being enough” subconsciously makes people not feel the need to be as mindful of the environment when making decisions in other aspects of their lives because, in the back of their minds, they have a catch-all solution already.
What Can Be Done?
We need to raise awareness in a way that actually sticks with people. The problem is, as a whole, many climate activists try to convert the people who believe that climate change is not actually a problem or that climate change is far-off. There are many people who just don’t want to see a problem no matter what is said to them. Informing them with facts doesn’t work. Emotional appeals don’t always work because there are some who only care about themselves. Stories of climate tragedies occurring in distant lands don’t affect them. They will only be convinced by having to deal with the problem firsthand, and even then, they might come up with another convoluted excuse for the problems they are experiencing.
At some point, we have to accept that not everyone will care about this issue. It’s impossible and naive to get everyone on Earth on the same page on any subject. While I don’t think we should completely give up on convincing people who are ignorant about climate change or environmental best practices, I think our effort would be more fruitful elsewhere.
Narrow Our Outreach Target Audience
I think we should focus on “preaching to the choir.” We should work on better informing the people who want to do the right thing but are accidentally causing harm. Let’s make the people who are already relatively environmentally considerate, more aware of what else can and should be done. If these people become more effective and efficient at reducing, reusing, and recycling, we can make up for those who refuse to participate.
Periodically Remind People of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle Best Practices
No one is perfect, and with so many things going on in our lives today, it’s natural to forget previously learned lessons sometimes. Some people who are environmentally considerate are wishful recyclers. So let’s work on teaching them what should and shouldn’t be recycled. Here is a list of items that shouldn’t be recycled in your household recycling according to Discover Magazine and WildMinimalist.com:
- Containers covered in food residue (recycling should always be cleaned)
- To-Go coffee cups & takeaway paper bowls
- Plastic bags
- Shredded paper
- Small plastics like plastic cutlery, pens, and straws
- Ribbons and bows (a holiday-time offender)
- Soiled Cardboard (like pizza boxes)
- Flexible shipping bags
- Gift wrap
- Small pieces of metal
- Receipts (either don’t take one or have it sent digitally)
- Broken crockery
- Dirty diapers (I’m going to assume that this was accidentally recycled by some)
Batteries and plastic bags both can be recycled at collection centers and retail stores. It’s dangerous to send batteries to landfills because when the casing corrodes the chemicals they contain are released into the soil and eventually enters the local water supply. Plastic bags can clog the machinery at the facilities that process household recycling.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) lists some informative reasons why and helpful tips for how to reduce and reuse. According to the EPA, new product creation encourages mining production of raw materials, which is a practice that uses large amounts of energy. The raw materials are then manufactured into the end-products that are shipped to their seller’s destination.
So if you don’t like mining practices because it’s often harmful to the environment, but you aren’t reducing and reusing, you are a part of the problem. Reducing and reusing saves money and energy, prevents pollution that mines cause by reducing the need to mine for new raw materials, extends the life of products, and reduces waste creation.
A few ways that the EPA suggest to reduce and reuse are:
- Buy used instead of brand new products.
- Purchase from companies that make an effort to reduce the amount of packaging they use.
- Buy and use reusable items like cloth shopping bags and coffee mugs.
- Maintain and repair products instead of throwing them out and getting a new one.
- Borrow, rent, or share items you don’t use often.
We have to treat informing people about the environment like a business. We need more effective marketing strategies to make it feel relevant to people and easy to do. This will eventually make reduce, reuse, recycle a natural part of life, not an act for the environment. People nowadays prioritize money, convenience, and fun over all else. So we need to consider these in future marketing strategies.
I think we should start with teaching kids more about the importance of reducing, reusing, and recycling. I grew up watching Captain Planet. Sure some people thought that show was cheesy, but it was effective. We don’t need to create a show, but maybe promote and create more apps that teach kids the importance of these practices and how to do them at home.
I think an app for adults would be useful as well. It could be used to create an easy to follow climate crisis prevention plan. I’m a budding app developer, so I’ll try to make one soon. In the meantime, we need to promote apps that are already available. The easier we make this process for people, the better. We need to prioritize making the environmentally-friendly choice convenient so that most people stick with it.
Companies Need To Be Addressed Too
The sad part is all of our efforts may go in vain if businesses and corporations don’t start to do more as well. Some companies are already starting to get on board, like when Starbucks eliminated straws from their stores. But more needs to be done.
Environmentalists and climate activists need to convince more companies to encourage customers to use reusable items, like bags or cups, by giving them a small discount for not using a disposable product. Doing this will eventually encourage even the climate deniers to participate because now it’s not about the environment; it’s about saving money. But in order to get companies to produce less waste, their bottom line needs to be affected.
The Climate Activist Playbook
Our mission as climate activists should be to remind and inform like-minded people of effective ways to reduce, reuse, and recycle, which must include a list of companies that are environmentally-friendly. Promoting them will make competing businesses lose some money. The competitors will be encouraged to change, if not outdo, their competition in this regard. Eventually, more companies will fall in line. This will eventually encourage the climate-deniers to also conform inadvertently.
Once these practices are socially accepted and expected, more politicians will be less resistant to climate solutions and policies due to mounting social pressure, cementing the progress we’ve made into law. It’s up to us as climate activists to organize and make this happen. This proposed solution, funny enough, is its own cycle that I believe if done properly will aid in the protection of the environment and in the mitigation of the climate crisis.