The Fourth “R” Of Recycling

Recycling just makes sense. Why spend extra energy to produce products from raw materials when they can be made using recycled materials? The amount of energy saved by recycling is mind-boggling, for example: recycling steel cans saves at least 75% of the energy it takes to create steel from raw materials. That’s enough energy to power 18 million homes. Recycling means we can conserve natural sources, energy, and landfill space.

Recycling center in Salida, CO.

Recycling center in Salida, CO.

While recycling is great, the thing people seem to gloss over is that it still takes energy and natural resources (like water to clean, and fuel to transport). As this Treehugger article said, "The amount of steps - not to mention electricity, water and manpower - that need to be taken to go from a bale of plastic bottles into safe, useable material is pretty staggering." I’ve tried to find the amount of resources it takes to recycle but I can’t find those numbers. But even without knowing the numbers, I know that it still uses a lot of energy and natural resources. But it’s understandable why I can’t find concrete numbers; no one wants to make a case against recycling. And neither do I.

Instead, I want to point out the realities of the situation: which is that recycling isn’t the answer to our problems. Recycling becomes this excuse for people when they buy a 24-pack of bottled water: “It’s ok, I’ll recycle it after I drink the water.” Or “It’s ok that I’m using 5 sheets of paper towel when one will do the job because I purchased 100% recycled paper towels.” What’s forgotten is that recycling is the last resort solution.

Watch this video on how plastic containers are recycled (note how many steps there are and the amount of water used).

The other problem with recycling is that it’s complicated, especially for those that live on the road. It’s hard to find places to recycle, to know what types of recycling a town will accept, and find a place to store all the items that need to be recycled. The most difficult factor is how items should be recycled: should plastic bottle caps stay on or off; how clean does a tin can have to be; is it ok if there are staples in a stack of paper; or do labels need to be removed from a glass jar? The rules vary from place to place. And in certain regions, if items are tossed into the recycle bin incorrectly it will contaminate the whole batch of recycling in the factory and will have to be tossed in the landfill – defeating the recycling efforts of hundreds of people. (If you’re starting to freak out, do. But not too much. There will be a post about how to properly recycle.)

But the benefits of recycling outweigh the hassles. I highly encourage everyone to recycle. After all, not recycling is like seeing $100 bill on the ground and not picking it up. It’s ridiculous.

The problem is that recycling isn’t the end-all solution. Most of us grew up learning the three R’s: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. Just to refresh your memory:

Image credit: Philip Chircop.

Image credit: Philip Chircop.

Reduce: Reduce what you purchase and use so that it doesn’t have to be produced in the first place. For example: buy bulk instead of individual packaged items to save on packaging or print double-sided (or even on scrap paper) instead of one-sided.

Reuse: The majority of things that we purchase can be reused again, whether for the same purpose it was made for or another use. For example: that red Solo cup that’s advertised as a disposable item is made so sturdy that it can be reused over and over. Why waste money buying more Solo cups for your next party when you can wash them for reuse? The plastic containers that Talenti ice cream comes in are durable enough that once we’ve finished the ice cream we use it as food storage.

Recycle: The majority of things we purchase in our every day lives can be recycled instead of being thrown into landfills.

This shows that there are more steps to being green than just recycling.

But one important step that has been left out of the slogan is: Refuse. It should be Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.

Refuse is saying no.

No, I don’t need that free promotional pen.

No, I don’t need a disposable straw at the restaurant, because I’m a grown-up and can drink out of a cup without spilling.*

No, I don’t need a plastic bag to put my groceries in because I’ve brought my own cloth bag.

No, I will not eat at that restaurant because they serve food on Styrofoam.

No, I will not buy paper towels that are not made from 100% recycled post consumer paper.

No, I won’t buy bottled water because I have my own reusable water bottle.

*Interesting piece of information: Bacardi has initiated a no-straw policy in its North American headquarters and gin distillery. They have also made it part of their company's environmental campaign and partnered with Surfrider Foundation.

It can be argued that refuse and reduce are similar in many ways. But the word “refuse” covers much more than “reduce”. It is also much more powerful than any of the other words in the green slogan. Refuse is a very proactive word. It encourages you to take a stand. It’s also a very obvious word - you don’t have to think twice about how to refuse something.

Refuse is the first line of defense in being eco-friendly. By refusing something you remove the necessity to reduce it, reuse it, and recycle it. But if refusing isn’t an option then reduce, then reuse, and finally – when you’ve exhausted all other options – recycle it.


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