You’ve likely all heard the motto “Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle.” It’s an admirable set of goals that, in theory, should go a long way toward keeping the Earth a cleaner, healthier, more livable place.
In reality, however, it is the latter part, the recycling, that often receives the most emphasis, in part because recycling programs across the United States make doing it so easy.
You can toss your plastic bottles, aluminum cans and various cardboard boxes into your recycling bin each week and feel a sense of accomplishment that you’re doing your part to save the environment.
But are you really?
Just what happens to that waste once it leaves your curb?
Well, some of it will, in fact, get reused. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), common household items that may contain recycled materials include:
Newspapers and paper towels
Aluminum, plastic, and glass soft drink containers
Plastic laundry detergent bottles
Recycled materials such as recovered glass may also be used in roadway asphalt (glassphalt) while recovered plastic may be used in carpeting, park benches, and pedestrian bridges.
Any reduction in waste via recycling is clearly a positive step … but it’s also becoming clear that recycling in and of itself will not be enough to keep up with the growing amounts of waste around the world.
Only a Small Amount of Waste Ever Gets Recycled
Recycling is kind of like trying to bail out your sinking ship using a thimble. The volume of waste continues to grow, and recycling just can’t keep up.
Take plastic for example, one of the biggest polluters of modern-day times.
In 2008, EPA statistics show the United States generated about 13 million tons of plastics in municipal solid waste as containers and packaging, almost 7 million tons as nondurable goods, and almost 11 million tons as durable goods.
That is 31 million tons of plastic waste, from the municipal category in the United States alone.
Out of all of that waste, only 2.1 million tons of it was recovered for recycling in 2008, which means nearly 29 million tons ended up in landfills or was disposed of in some other way, such as burning.
So while I’m all for recycling – every little bit helps – this issue needs to be addressed in the way I often speak about health: at the root cause of the “disease.”
You Have Too Much Stuff
At the heart of the waste problem in the United States is a capitalistic society that encourages buying more and more “stuff.” I am actually a fan of capitalism, but there has to be some level of social and environmental responsibility there, or the entire system, and world, will ultimately fail.
Buying “stuff” you don’t really need can take a massive toll on the environment, in many more ways than you may realize. If you have not seen it yet, I highly recommend you watch The Story of Stuff, as it does a phenomenal job of illustrating the real effects of over-consumption and over-production.
All of this “stuff” -- the electronics, the toys, the clothes and all the other material goods that we in the United States use to express our very own personal value -- carry a hefty price tag, not just for your wallet but also for the planet and the people who live on it.
The Story of Stuff shows just how all these products end up in your home, detailing the processes of extraction (trashing the planet), production (adding in toxic chemicals), distribution, consumption and ultimately disposal.
The impact all of this has on communities at home and abroad are hidden from your view, yet it is immense.
Adding to the problem is planned obsolescence, on a functional, design and even aesthetic level, which makes perfectly good products no longer usable.
It is because of built-in obsolescence that you’ve probably traded in your perfectly good computer just to get a newer model, or sent a bag of clothing to goodwill so you can get the latest fashions. It’s also the reason why certain products break after a couple of uses and have to be replaced.
You are living in a society that makes you feel behind if you do not buy the latest model of this or that. Contrast that to a couple of generations ago when frugality and resourcefulness were what was valued, and you begin to see where the real problems with waste are springing from.
Simple Ways to Generate Less Waste
You do have the power to help change this downward spiral. As The Story of Stuff points out:
“Current consumption patterns are unsustainable and inequitable and must be changed. But changing consumer behavior isn't enough.
Yes, when we shop, we should buy the least damaging product available and affordable, but consumption is a systems problem, meaning our choices at the supermarkets are pre-determined and limited by political and institutional forces beyond the store.
To change these, we need to step beyond our role as consumers and reclaim our identity as engaged citizens in a democracy.”
If more people started complaining about wasteful packaging, products that are built to break within six months and have to be continually replaced, and products that can’t be reused or recycled, public pressure could potentially revert this damaging, wasteful trend.
On an individual level, here are some commonsense things you can do to reduce the amount of waste you create, and help keep you healthier:
Store your food in glass, not plastic
Avoid processed foods (which are stored in plastic bags with chemicals)
Use reusable cloth shopping bags instead of plastic
Re-bottle your filtered tap water into glass bottles instead of buying plastic bottled water
Avoid throwing old fluorescent light bulbs into your regular trash. Remember, mercury is an incredibly toxic and dangerous substance; a single drop in a large lake could make all the fish in it unsafe for consumption. Home Depot offers an excellent recycling program for old fluorescent bulbs.
Use non-disposable feminine hygiene products and cloth diapers instead of disposable
In general, purchasing locally sourced and locally crafted goods, from a local merchant, will be best for the environment and your local economy. For items you cannot get made locally, seek out responsible companies that do not exploit people or the environment to make your purchases from.
You can also check out Web sites such as Freecycle, where you can lessen the landfill load by giving away your unwanted items to people who can put them to good use, and even find a few free treasures of your own.