The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and most municipal waste agencies focus on recycling. Understandable, since they deal with the waste when it leaves us, the consumers. Before you arrive at the recycling phase, consider whether you can avoid getting there at all. If your goal is to reduce the impact of your lifestyle, you would do better to take each of the Rs in order.
How conscious are we about the garbage and other stuff that comes into our houses daily? Before you arrive at recycling, ask if you need to buy that item that is going to be recycled. Can you do without it? Can you choose an option with less packaging, such as buying in bulk? How can you plan ahead for less waste by reducing what you buy?
We buy flour in a 25-lb bag made of heavy paper, but small bags of flour also come in paper bags. We buy rice in burlap bags, so we avoid the small plastic bags. Bulk food is an easy first step.
When you are looking at reducing waste that will need to be recycled, look for items that come in less packaging that is more easily recycled. For example, if you buy batteries two at a time in the grocery aisle, they come in heavy plastic clam-shell packaging that requires heavy kitchen shears to open then must be recycled. If you buy batteries by the dozen or more, they come in a cardboard half-box with light, shrink-wrapped plastic. Of course, if you use rechargeable batteries, you go through this step only once.
To take another example that seems to come up every couple of months, I look at my children’s worn out shoes and wonder how to reduce the need to throw away raggedy sneakers so often. Our answer is to buy the most durable shoes we can afford. This is less expensive in the long run, and we end up with fewer holey soled shoes in the garbage.
Before I buy, is there something else I can reuse first? When making a choice, is there something that I can use for multiple purposes?
Flat or prefold cloth diapers can be reused as rags. They make great cleaning cloths. A fitted diaper or a polyester cover can’t really be re-purposed in that way.
To take another example from recent family reality, when I can convince my daughter (older) to wear a gender-neutral winter coat, I know I can then hand it down to my son in a few years. If you have just one child or you can’t convince them to wear the same clothes, send the clothes to a consignment store so another child can wear them.
If you have already been through the first two stages, once you arrive at the recycling stage you have less to consider. Recycling costs more financially and environmentally. Recycling isn’t simply about buying a plastic water bottle that has the correct recycling symbol then putting it in a bin when finished. If that is all we do, we haven’t quite connected with the whole concept of Reduce Reuse Recycle.
Reduce and Reuse first. Then be sure to recycle everything that can be recycled.
And, when you have a choice, buy goods that are made from recycled materials to close the loop.