Rethinking Waste

I have an unpopular opinion about recycling: I think it’s the least of the three Rs.

Reduce. Reuse. Recycle.

What if if they come in that order for a reason?

What if we’ve been using our last resort as our first line of defence?

I’m dating myself here, but I recall being in elementary school when our local small town stores made the switch from paper bags to plastic.

Being the age that I was, I didn’t stop to think gee, what’s the impetus behind this, but I do know that the blue boxes showed up in our classrooms at roughly the same time. And I knew that we needed to put our paper there because cutting down trees was bad.

So bad that one of my teachers started yelling when she found a sheet of paper in the trash.

We were also encouraged to write on the backside of the sheet, unless it was a test and our teacher told us not to, but no one shouted if we failed to do that.

I distinctly recall the classroom education around our blue box. I don’t remember any discussion about plastic being a petroleum based product that couldn’t biodegrade in a landfill.

Young people had an important job to do, and ours was to save the trees.

Fast forward twenty years. I’m in another classroom and my prof suggests, for the sake of argument, that our recycling model doesn’t help the environment as much as we’d like to think.

He says that while recycling diverts waste from landfills, the separate fleet of trucks collecting it and the plants that process the materials create significant emissions that shift the pollution to the air.

It gave me pause. Up to that point, I had sainted recycling as a solution without faults.

If I think recycling is the least of the three Rs, it’s because it’s the most convenient.

It requires no change in our consumer habits; it requires only that we sort our waste into different bins.

Worst of all, it can trick us into feeling complacent about our positive contribution, and anything that makes us feel complacent about our level of consumption in the Western world is dangerous.

Reduce and reuse require a little more effort. Practicing these Rs often means invoking a couple more as they invite us to reimagine and repurpose the things we already have.

Sometimes I wonder how different things would be if the same amount of energy that went into promoting recycling had been invested in reducing and reusing.

The push to recycle has made us better at thinking twice before we toss something in the garbage. If we take that same approach to our recycling and ask ourselves how could this be used before discarding something into the blue bin, we’ll be that much better off.

I’m sure I’ve ruffled a few feathers here, and if you’re annoyed because you feel I’m suggesting everyone should make up-cycling their hobby, please know that I’m not.

I’m not going to tell you what you should reuse and how you should go about it because you are the expert on what is useful in your home.

But I do know that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, so connecting with others is an important part of  how we responsibly dispose of unwanted stuff.

Freecycle is one way to do this. If you’re not familiar with this non-profit, stay tuned. My next post will be all about it.

2 Replies to “Rethinking Waste”

  1. Interesting thoughts to ponder. I’ll certainly be looking at ‘things’ and their best purpose through a different lens now. I like where you’re headed with this!

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