Why Recycling Is My Lowest Priority
by Kentin Waits
We live in a world that loves sound bites and oversimplifications. We embrace concepts that sound wonderful without much critical thought. All the noise around recycling is a classic example of what happens when an idea gets a lot of press, but in isolation doesn’t really solve much. The larger and more inclusive mantra of “reduce, reuse, and recycle” is the real game-changing idea, yet we often forget about the first two “R’s” and what they truly mean. To me, the three R’s are in descending order of importance. Here’s why. (See also: Save Money by Rekindling the Art of Using Your Stuff)
For those of us who care about sustainability, good environmental stewardship, and simplicity, reduction is the primary motivator and the foundation of all the other principles. Reducing our wants and needs sets the stage for managing reuse effectively and recycling efficiently. Eliminating items from our personal orbits is the first small step in eliminating demand for them entirely.
It’s comical and only cosmetically green to continually over-buy and think that we’re saving the earth by merely recycling the packaging of our surplus. Without reduction, restraint, and constant review, recycling is only marginally effective and provides us with a misleading sense of comfort and a hollow consolation.
Reuse is the big brother of recycling. It involves avoiding single-use items and giving new life to objects in their original form or with only slight modifications. Recycling means destroying the original form and remanufacturing a new item from the material. Recycling is energy-intensive; reusing is creative. Reuse happens in the sewing room, garden, art studio, or workshop. Recycling happens at the curb.
Recycling has a voracious appetite for waste — paper, aluminum, glass, and plastic are all fed into its gaping maw. Waste implies a cycle that’s just inefficient enough to leave something behind. As a result, recycling is the last stop in the short life of a product we couldn’t do without and couldn’t figure out how to reuse. It’s a passive, business-as-usual approach to consumption that requires the very least of us — sorting the wrappers of our spoils.
I’m not saying that recycling isn’t necessary or valuable — it’s just the lowest priority. But it continues to get top billing in a world of environmental sound bites. After all, manufacturers, retailers, and marketers can’t quite figure out how to market the idea of “less” to us. Instead, they sell us designer “green” shopping bags, reusable mugs, colorful recycling containers, and more disposable products made with 45% post-consumer waste. What kind of revolutionary statement would we make if we just shopped less, bought less, reused more and ultimately had very little to recycle?