When I made a commitment to living a more sustainable lifestyle several years ago, I entered through the door of recycling – an unfamiliar door, at that. I grew up only recycling large cardboard boxes because . . . that’s just what you do (?). My family didn’t recycle the hundreds of papers we were left with at the end of the school year. All the cans we acquired from soda (we would have called this “Coke” in Tennessee, mind you) and other sources wound up in the garbage.
So when I first became familiar with the idea that you could recycle so much more than cardboard boxes, I was pretty hooked. I slowly began to introduce the practicing of reducing and reusing to manage my consumption and waste as well, and was pretty great at it for a while. Lately, though, I’ve fallen off the bandwagon a bit. In 2011, I became a city-dweller for the first time in years. With this new environment, I slowly disconnected from my regimented practice of always bringing my reusable mug with me and carrying compost around in my bag until I was able to deposit it in my compost at home (true story).
I am writing this post to reinvigorate my own – and hopefully some of yours, too! – passion for being mindful of the waste I take on and put out into the world.
Note: I have broken these up into lovely little sections, each labeled “Reduce,” “Reuse,” & “Recycle.” The reality is that these three often overlap, intersect, and intertwine with one another. Sometimes something looks like a form of “reusing,” but simultaneously, you are reducing your waste and actually recycling something into a new purpose as well. So know that there aren’t always clear-cut distinctions between these 3 Rs; the point is that we do our best to incorporate some of these practices into our lives!
As I mentioned, I began really practicing environmental sustainability by recycling. For many, this is where mindfulness of waste begins and ends. I have found that there is more to being a good steward of the environment – and humanity – than simply recycling. Recycling is, in some ways, a reactive measure to waste that has already been created. What if we were to ask some questions about how to avoid the “Do I recycle this or do I throw this in the garbage?” question that many of us may find ourselves asking?
This is what reducing is all about – it is a preventive measure to cut off waste from being part of the cycle in the first place. Sometimes, though, we already have the stuff that we need/want to get rid of to simplify our lives, which is where the three of these Rs intersect.
- Buy only what you need
This is tricky, for sure, but can be done. Before you impulsively click through the automatic shopping cart online or throw that goody in your basket, assess whether you really need it or not. Try asking yourself the following questions before you make a purchase:
Will this improve my life?
Do I already have this or something like it?
Will this replace something I need that is old/worn-out?
Is this good quality & long lasting?
Is there space (and a purpose) for this in my living quarters?
- Refuse freebies
Oh my. This one is even tougher than the first. When I see a dilapidated couch on the side of the road, I convince myself of the ways I need this lump of fabric and stuffing. Thankfully, I am able to shake myself into reality again pretty quickly. But really, we all know the temptation of free stuff. This can often fit in with a simple living/DIY lifestyle, as there’s lots of emphasis in acquiring thrifted or free goods. While this is definitely a great practice, it’s important to be sure we need something before we take it on – enter my 1st point.
- Declutter your living space
My husband and I recently moved, and packing up was a huge wake-up call for us. We realized that we needed to reduce our belongings a lot. This leads into reusing & recycling as well. One point I find pertinent to reducing here is that for us, as we let go of belongings that were no longer (or never did) serving us, we found that the things we really needed and found useful emerged. There were certain situations where we had so much stuff that we couldn’t locate the things we actually needed, and then would go out and buy something new when we had that thing all along! So decluttering can really lend itself to reducing waste in a number of ways.
There’s all kinds of goodies to buy these days. There’s even eco-friendly . . . EVERYTHING! In this way, as an environmentally conscious consumer, it can be easy to get distracted by labels and promises of green pastures & fresh air. The reality & bottom line is – buying that new shiny environmentally-friendly thing is not necessarily better than repurposing something of your own that could fill the same role.
Here are some examples of ways to reuse rather than be tempted to consume more (even if it is local & eco-friendly):
- Rather than succumbing to the desire to buy those awesome new Seventh Generation wipes that are the safer/healthier version of Clorox wipes (which I almost did the other day . . . they were on sale!), try turning old T-shirts into rags. Come on, you know you have too many T-shirts ;)
- “Compostable” plates & silverware are a great alternative to plastics, but try taking it a step further and have silverware on hand for when you eat on the go. You can just bring the silverware you have at home; it’s pretty sturdy.
- You know all those cute canning jars you have laying around? Or the variety of glass jars you’ve acquired from who knows where? Use them to fill up all your bulk goods from the grocery store – most places will welcome this form of storage (especially co-ops) if you know the tare weight.
So sometimes (or a lot of times!) we find ourselves with stuff that we have to find a home for. We don’t see a viable use for this stuff, or maybe we just don’t have time or a vision for what to do with it. This is where recycling often comes in. Recycling is a form of someone else reusing your waste. Sometimes it is broken down into a million pieces and put back together into something else; other times it is used mostly as-is but with new love from a new owner. Often times, recycling is the best way to maintain hazardous waste and divert it.
There are oh-so-many things that can be recycled. Here are just a few of them:
Items containing mercury
Here are a few tips for recycling:
- Just do it! Seriously, this is the hardest part for me at least. Start a recycling bin inside your house and put up cute little signs as a reminder to you and your family.
- Know what you can recycle & where. The list above are just a few things that can be recycled, some that are more “alternative.” Earth 911 is a great resource for finding locations near you that recycle items other than the common paper, plastic, glass, & metal.
- After you get into the flow of recycling, go the extra mile. If you are out somewhere and don’t see a recycling bin for a recyclable you’re in possession of, take it with you! Carry things with you for a bit until you find a place to recycle them.
- Assess your purchases (after you’ve answered the questions under the “Reduce” question) based on recyclability – i.e., is this packaging recyclable? Avoid plastic packaging, which often can’t be recycled. Sticking to bulk purchases reduces waste in the first place.
- Compost! This is a way of recycling your food waste into viable nutrients. Learn more here.
Practicing mindful consumption like reducing, reusing, & recycling prevents valuable materials from going to waste. When I turn that T-shirt into a rag, I am saving money by not buying new rags or paper towels.
This chart, from the city of Norfolk, Nebraska, outlines the value of unrecycled commodities:
Conserves Energy & Natural Resources
There is some debate over whether recycling actually saves more resources and energy since it goes through its own process to be turned into something new. The truth is that using recycled materials in manufacture uses less energy than using completely raw materials. In reducing, reusing, and recycling, we are also conserving natural resources like trees, water, and mineral ores.
Here are some numbers:
- When one ton of steel is recycled, 2,500 pounds of iron ore, 1,400 pounds of coal, and 120 pounds of limestone are conserved
- Recycling a ton of paper saves 7,000 gallons of water
- In 2011, Americans recycled 61 billion aluminum cans, saving the energy equivalent of 17 million barrels of crude oil
Reduces Landfill Space
This is an easy one to get on board with. The more we reduce, reuse, and recycle our waste, the less trash we put into landfills, the less space we have to devote to landfills. Not only does this mean less of our land is dedicated to piles of garbage, but also . . .
Landfills are a major source of pollution. Toxic emissions from landfills leach into our air, water, and soil. This is one reason why it’s very important to recycle hazardous materials mindfully. Even “ordinary” waste produces large amounts of methane in landfills, which are 20-30 times more potent in its climate change effects than carbon dioxide.
When we begin to think about our consumption habits and what we do with our waste, we become more aware of our way of living in general. We are given an opportunity to assess the way we are living in a more mindful and less self-centered way.
Those are just a few reasons why the 3 Rs matter and some ways we can incorporate this practice into our lives!
Any questions, comments, or thoughts that have stirred up?
What are some creative ways you practice the 3 Rs?
Share in the comments below!