How many times have you heard those three words repeated? And how much have those three words translated into action?
It isn’t easy. We live among disposable products. From the plastic bags in grocery stores, to the mop heads used for cleaning, to the printers we buy every two years just after the warranty runs out. I’m sure we could all write a list longer than this post of the disposable items in our everyday lives. Sure, there is a convenience factor with all the stuff we use for a short time before tossing. But I would bet most of the time the benefits from convenience are far outweighed by the many negatives to our environment and many lost opportunities for our community. I’ve been thinking about the 3Rs a bit more in the past few week , both at home and work, and thought I’d share (and hope that you do the same).
Reduce. There are at least few sides to this equation, owning less and making sure the things you do buy are durable and come in minimal packaging. There are a lot of ways to own less stuff, whether through borrowing, leasing, or renting. Libraries are a great example of this; when I know I only need a book for a short time I’ll borrow it rather than buy. Since I don’t expect I’ll be doing too much winter camping, when I do go (since I’m trying to go camping every month for a year) I’ll rent the extra equipment I need. This is an approach that is best suited when there is only a short term or occasional use. When it is something you need in the long term it makes more sense to find durable items that will last, can be repaired, and are multipurpose. I accumulated a lot of cheap kitchen gadgets as a student and not that many of them have stood the test of time. As I now replace them I look for things that I hope will last longer. (My current project is to find an all stainless steel French press when my current Franken-French press – a combination of two broken French presses – inevitably breaks). The other main approach I use is to try to avoid over-packaging. I find one of the easiest ways to do this is to go local. The farmers we get food from each week don’t even have plastic bags, they’ve made us bring our own from the start. And it isn’t just food when packaging can be avoided. A couple of years I had a commuter cycling bag made for me by a Toronto-based bike store. I not only got exactly the bag I wanted when I picked it up a week after ordering it but it also didn’t come in boxes, plastic bags or anything else that I would toss as soon as I got it.
Reuse. One of the things that made me think about the 3Rs was the huge numbers of ziploc-style bags that we took canoe camping last week, to store food and keep everything dry. As part of the post-camping chores, I washed all these bags and hung them out to dry for the next canoe camping adventure. Again, there are a couple of ways to achieve greater reuse including reusing your own stuff or buying/selling used stuff. I find food an easy area to practice reuse, whether from shopping with reusable bags to preserving tomatoes and other veggies in reusable mason jars. Jim and I have almost eliminated the use of paper towels by having a lot of dishcloths and dishtowels on hand that can just get tossed in the wash. Buying used goods rather than buying new or selling used goods rather than recycling or land-filling has been a popular approach for a while. Yard sales, newspaper classified, charity thrift stores, and flea markets have been around for a while. Newer options include online searchable classified like kijiji and craig’s list, community swaps, and freecycling. These alternatives to buying new mean a more affordable way to get stuff, a chance to find something unique and an increased likelihood of interacting with your community during the exchange. And by being a seller, there is a chance to make a bit of cash. Or, if you are unmotivated to sell like I am, Toronto has a culture of leaving out reusable items a few days before garbage day for others to pick up. I’ve scored a lot of great pots for my tomatoes this way and have left a few things on the curb as well that quickly were picked up.
Recycle. Most places are getting pretty good at offering recycling as part of curb side pick up and I’ve been lucky enough to live in places with decent recycling programs. This is likely the side of the 3R equation we’re all best at (I know I am). But this is the lowest on the 3Rs hierarchy. Reduce and Reuse are considered better. The reason for this is even though the materials themselves might be diverted from landfills, a lot of energy and water can be used to transport the materials and remanufacture them. And since most manufacturers don’t design their products with recycling in mind, a lot of stuff still ends up in a landfill. Plus, recycling programs don’t come cheap. They cost local governments money to run that I doubt they often recover because the operating costs would be greater than the price they’d get for the materials once they are sorted and sold (since so many of us are doing in now supply is likely outpacing demand). Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to discourage recycling, we’ve come a long way and I think we should be pushing for more to be diverted from landfill. But the best way to get a higher diversion is for something to not need to be in the waste stream in the first place.