There is a reason that recycling comes last in the often-repeated maxim of “reduce, reuse, recycle.” That is where it should be: the last resort.
Recycling is what we do with something when we have exhausted all opportunities to redesign the product to be more durable, to reuse or repair it, or to simply do without it altogether.
As a last resort, recycling is better than landfill or incineration for sure. But we shouldn’t believe for a second that recycling will turn things around environmentally.
Reducing the amount of “stuff” we consume is the surest way to reduce waste and save both natural resources and money.
One of the most eye-opening ways to help you reduce your consumption is to take on an experimental, 30-day family spend-fast. A spend-fast is where, for a limited period of time, you voluntarily spend money only on the things you need to survive, like basic groceries (no expensive treats), doctor visits and medicine, and transportation, for example.
Things to eliminate during a spend-fast might include lattés, potato chips, books and magazines, new clothing or movie rentals—whatever you buy that goes above and beyond your basic needs.
After doing this for a month or even just a week, it can be amazing to see just how much money you can save and just how little stuff you really need to be happy. Spend-fasting might even be habit-forming!
“The Story of Stuff” is a brilliant little movie to share with your family about how reducing consumption can make us all healthier and wealthier.
Reusing and re-purposing things are time-worn tricks I learned from my grandmother. After living through the Great Depression, my grandmother darned her socks again and again until she could no longer repair them—even after she had the money to buy new ones.
She also used to take the mesh bags onions and potatoes come in and sew them into very effective scrubbing pads for washing dishes. All her vegetable scraps became compost and fertilizer for next season’s garden, and all my grandfather’s old t-shirts became cleaning rags.
Very little actual trash left my grandparents’ house. Not only did reusing and re-purposing their things save them tons of money when money was tight, but it made them eco-friendly conservationists decades before environmentalism was on anyone’s mind.
Next time you’re thinking of throwing something away, consider how you might repair it or creatively reuse it instead of sending it to the landfill. Can you use old, torn clothing as a cleaning rags instead of buying paper towels—saving both trees and energy? Can it be composted? Can it be used for an arts and crafts project? There’s really no limit to how you can reuse the things that no longer serve their original purpose!
If you really just can’t find a new use for something, you can always give it away to charity or a local thrift store, or you can Freecycle it. Freecycling is when a person directly passes on—for free—an unwanted item to another person who needs that item.
From silverware to mobile homes, people worldwide are choosing to freecycle rather than discard. The practice frees up space in landfills and cuts down on the need to manufacture new goods. To that end, there are several very cool websites that allow you to share your books, cds, tools, toys, etc. with your friends or whatever circles you decide to create.
Here are a few of the better ones:
They say one person’s trash is another person’s treasure. Buying gently-used, second-hand items is both a good way to reuse things that others are done with, but it’s also a great way to save money and reduce your consumption.
Some people make a hobby of thrifting at yard sales, consignment shops and antique stores, and it can be quite fun. But if you can’t get out to your local shops, these online thrift stores can help you get started.
- GoodWill Online
- Everything But the House
- Play it Again Sports
- Plato’s Closet
- Once Upon a Child
- Style Encore
- Music Go Round
As a last resort, you can recycle cardboard, paper, aluminum and many types of plastic at the recycling center in your town. Most U.S. cities have curbside pickup for these common recyclable items. Just be aware that for paper and plastic, recycling only delays the landfill for one more generation, and more and more cities are shutting down their plastic recycling programs because they are not cost effective!
Many cities also have e-cycling events where you can bring your old computer and electronic equipment for proper recycling and disposal (They often contain dangerous heavy metals and shouldn’t be just thrown away).
Most U.S. Post Offices also carry postage-paid envelopes specifically for mailing off and recycling your used MP3 players, PDAs, cellphones and other handheld electronics. You can also recycle certain electronics for cash by visiting EcoATM.com.
Why Recycling Doesn’t Work
The word recycling means taking a material, melting it down, and turning it back into itself over and over. This can be done with glass and metal, both of which can be remelted and remade into jars or cans forever.
On the other hand, some materials degrade over time, and can only be recycled once or twice until the material breaks down too much, and can no longer be reformed into what it once was.
This is called downcycling.
Plastic and paper can only be downcycled. Plastic water and soda bottles, for example, are not usually turned back into bottles. Instead, the plastic is broken down and used for something more basic like fleece fabric or plastic lumber. This means that used plastic bottles cannot be made into new plastic bottles, and virgin plastic made from fossil fuels is still required for their manufacture.
Paper can only be recycled once or twice until it’s only good for toilet paper. Despite this, millions of acres of trees are still cut down every year just so we can wipe our bottoms.
Recycling is really our last-ditch effort to save a precious resource, like oil, water or trees, but it really only prolongs the inevitable loss of that resource in the landfill, or as litter in our oceans and rivers.
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, so whether you reduce your consumption, or reuse, re-purpose, or give away old items, with a little creativity, avoiding the recycling bin can be easy, rewarding, and fun!