Did you know recycling is meant to be a last resort? Instead, it has made us more wasteful! A closer look at the three Rs (or five, in this case) in their right order.
1. Reduce (and Refuse)
The only good waste is the waste that is never produced. The only real way we can reduce our footprint is to reduce our consumption in the first place: Reducing goes hand in hand with a simpler life. It is the antithesis of consumer culture and requires the strength to reject the prevailing culture that dictates we must have more in order to be happy, to be worthy, or simply because we are entitled to it (are we really?) It means only buying what we need, aware that it is our demand that sets in motion the production lines that suck the planet dry, and also keeping down our usage of resources such as water and energy. It means that when we buy, we bear in mind the end of the object’s life, no matter how distant, and opt for natural materials, which won’t be so problematic come disposal time. It also means avoiding single-use waste as much as possible, whether it’s food packaging, napkins, or anything else that is “disposable”, with a particular avoidance of materials that can neither decompose nor be recycled (see Plastic & Other Packaging).
The will to reduce often leads to decluttering of one’s life, parting with anything that we’re not using, which is in effect wasted. Obviously, if you do this, don’t throw away the lot: find a friend who needs it, donate it or place it in charity shops. Finding new homes for still-serviceable things means that someone else won’t have to buy them newly-made.
The subheading, Refuse, refers to turning down disposables that are offered to you (such as takeaway bags, even paper, or excess napkins), but also anything you don’t need. Pamphlets on the street, or free samples, or objects that you don’t really want: we don’t have to take in waste or clutter just because it’s free.
Simple things you can do:
- Call companies that send you catalogues and ask them to send you emails instead — CatalogChoice can do this in bulk for you.
- Don’t print documents unless you have to. Use both sides of the paper.
- Refuse paper bags and avoid packaging as much as possible (all of this Zero Waste section is dedicated to helping you do that).
- Abandon the habit of wrapping gifts in paper, and adopt reusable cloth wrap instead (which can simply be a square you cut out of fabric, no need to buy fancy ones if you don’t want to!)
- Borrow things that you only need temporarily, instead of buying them.
- And much more!
Respect your possessions: treat everything you own as if it were irreplaceable. This was the norm right up to the industrial revolution, when the sudden ability to mass-produce things brought about a new conceit we are still stuck with: the cult of disposability. Prior to this, human beings valued the little they owned because they had to make nearly all of it, or buy / barter it with something they made or grew. Our current consumer culture is instilled with (indeed was built on) the contempt for “used” objects and the need to frequently replace them with new ones, and a cult of the disposable that extends to neglecting what we have because it’s so easy and cheap to replace them. It is not cheap nor easy for the Earth, who really pays the price of this turnaround. These attitudes were created, and are promoted by the industries that want you to buy their products not once, but over and over again, to the extent of deliberately making them short-lived, and we don’t have to be willing pigeons in that game. We don’t need a new phone or wardrobe every year, or to replace perfectly functional items just because we’re bored with the old ones. Respect for things is respect for the natural matter that was sacrificed to make them, and the least we can do is not ask for more sacrifice than is necessary. What this also implies is: only acquire things that you will love and use for a long long time, never as a cheap fix to be discarded as soon as something better comes along.
When something stops working, we are too quick to dispose of it and buy a replacement: this is encouraged by planned obsolescence – makers designing goods to have a limited lifespan, so that consumers keep on consuming. Good maintenance, as well as repair, can really extend an item’s life— and despite what society may want us to believe, there is no shame in holding on to things until they’re past repairing. Holes in clothes and socks can be darned. The same clothes can be dyed, if a stain won’t go. A laptop’s battery can be serviced and its memory upgraded. A phone screen can be repaired. And so on. All cost less than a replacement, both for you and for the planet. You may even be able to repair it yourself, thanks to some new initiatives that are gaining ground:
- Repair Cafés are free meeting places and they’re all about repairing things (together). The types of items that can be repaired and reused include clothes, furniture, electrical appliances, bicycles, crockery and toys. This concept originated in Holland but is now spreading around the world – check the site to see if there is one near you.
- Spareka (FR) sells spare parts – millions of spare parts for everything under the sun – to make it as easy as possible to make repairs. The site also offers guidance and youtube tutorials. All you need to do is enter a device’s reference to find the parts you need.
Reuse refers to finding a different use for an item once it has fulfilled its original function. Most commonly, this is for packaging: jars are a prime example of packaging that gets reused (one hopes). Yet this can be very creative, and developing countries often set an example for reusing, from the basic to the innovative. I grew up seeing powder milk tins reused as planters for kitchen herbs, but also recently spotted a chair that had lost its seat being used as a basketball hoop. So take a careful look at what you’re about to dispose of. Can it or parts of it be useful in some other way? If not to you, they could be to someone else.
A few examples:
- Newspapers can be reused to replace plastic bin bags, or as packing material instead of bubble wrap or packing peanuts (shredded paper is also good for this).
- Reuse all mailers, by pasting the new address over the old and sealing with gummed paper tape. If you receive more mail than you send, maybe you know someone who’s an eBay or Etsy seller and would welcome free mailers for their use.
- Far-gone t-shirts can be cut and used as kitchen or cleaning rags.
- Deceased tights make excellent fine-mesh strainers.
- And so on…
At the very bottom of our priority list, we come to recycling. This is our very last chance to stop waste and discarded goods from going to landfill, which is a rather tame word for the devastating reality of where all this rubbish goes. Recycling is problematic. It is driven by economics: materials get recycled only if there is a buyer for the material that comes out the other end, and priority goes to materials that fetch a higher price. It also requires energy and manpower, so it only happens where these can be afforded. For this reason, it is also uneven: depending on where you live, you’ll be able to recycle different things, if there is recycling at all. Some materials (tin, glass) can truly be recycled, others lose quality in the process and, after a handful of cycles, either fall apart completely (paper) or have to go to landfill (plastic) (see Plastic & Other Packaging for full details.) It is of course vastly better to recycle than not to, and we should also prefer goods made of recycled material whenever we can. But the illusion that recycling solves our waste problem and makes up for our consumption is a pervasive and harmful one, giving us “permission” to waste more because by recycling we are doing a good deed. In truth, the numbers are sobering with only a fraction of global waste recycled at all. This is why we need to see it for what it is: a last-ditch attempt at recovery, our very last resort.
Find out about recycling programs in your area and what they accept. For materials they don’t take, and notoriously hard-to-recycle things, here are useful companies.
- Terracycle is “an innovative recycling company that has become a global leader in recycling hard-to-recycle waste,” which is to say a recycling gold mine. They never incinerate or send to landfill, but find ways to recycle or upcycle it. They work globally through free collection programmes (which you have access to by signing up for an account). They also operate a ZeroWaste Box system that is of interest to companies, schools, groups of people, but also professionals. For instance, after selecting UK as my country, I entered “paint tubes” into the product stream search box and got presented with the Arts & Crafts box. I have to purchase it (and I could split the cost with likeminded studio neighbours) but once it’s full, I only have to call UPS for them to collect it and send it back. Well-worth looking into.