Living Up to the Mantra: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle / by Simone Johnson

by Simone Johnson

Photograph by  Andreas Gücklhorn

Photograph by Andreas Gücklhorn

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

When we talk about “sustainability” or “reducing our carbon footprint,” a lot of us have probably heard this slogan- reduce, reuse, recycle. It’s a good slogan, a clear message that reminds us of the steps we need to take to push toward a more sustainable future. Unfortunately, our practices around reducing our waste, using reusable materials, and recycling what we can’t, aren’t treated equal. Oftentimes we focus more on recycling than we do generating less waste. Sometimes we don’t think about recycling at all.

Now, don’t get me wrong… recycling has a lot of great benefits. It diverts millions of tons of waste away from landfills, helps us conserve our natural resources and reduces greenhouse gas emissions. With these benefits, plus a lot more, my question for you is… is recycling enough?

Sustainability is a matter of generating less waste.

When we talk “sustainability” i.e. that we are able to meet the needs of the present, without compromising future generations ability to meet theirs, we need to talk about how we produce and “manage” our waste. Just because you recycle a ton, doesn’t mean you’re more sustainable than the next person if you produce more waste than they do.

We have to remember that while recycling should be done whenever possible, it’s a false solution to the pervasive problem of litter in our oceans and natural environment, especially when we talk about plastic. Plastic is one of the single most used materials in many day to day activities. Activities like eating, drinking, buying groceries at the store, or ordering takeout from a restaurant. The sad truth, is more often than not, the items we buy are almost always made out of plastic. A lot of the plastic we use are what’s called single-use, meaning after the first time we use them, we throw them away. We have to remember that not all plastic is recyclable. And even more so, not all plastics that are recyclable, are actually recycled.

What happens to plastics that aren’t recycled?

Plastics end up in our oceans and natural environments, interfering with the marine life, wildlife and humans who have to grapple daily with their changing worlds. In the 1930s, people ranted and raved about plastic. They thought it was the greatest invention! Now, in little more than a century, people are beginning to realize that maybe it’s not so great. I have some statistics to help explain why.

Plastic Pollution: Images of a Global Problem, National Geographic

Plastic Pollution: Images of a Global Problem, National Geographic

It’s estimated that 8.3 billion metric tons of virgin plastic has been produced to date. Of this, 6.3 billion metric tons have turned into plastic waste. Sadly, only 7% of this plastic has actually been recycled and a whopping 79% has ended up in our landfills and natural environment.

So when we think of those plastic drinking bottles we often purchase, once we drink that water and toss the bottle in the recycling (hopefully)… perhaps it gets turned into another water bottle down the road. Or maybe it’s used for what’s called downcycling, which is the process of taking a plastic product and turning it into another piece of plastic.

Is it recycled… or downcycled?

Is it recycled… or downcycled?

Maybe that water bottle gets turned into a new plastic item like the plastic lumber that families often use to build decks in their backyards, or textiles that we purchase at our local fabric shops or bumper stickers we proudly sport with messages like “save our forest” on them. At the end of the day, while we’re “recycling,” eh-um downcycling, these items will eventually all get sent to the same place – our landfills or worse, the natural environment where municipal waste management isn’t happening.

And unfortunately, our earth just isn’t able to keep up with the amount of waste humans produce. Especially when we consider how long it takes for these plastics to biodegrade.

All of this waste has contributed to plastic concentration in 5 offshore ocean zones.

The largest one is located between the coast of California and Hawaii. It’s called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP) and it’s estimated to be 1.6 million square kilometers in size... that’s about 3x the size of France.

Now you might be wondering, well, how do all these plastics end up in the ocean? When waste is poorly maintained by our communities, the waste enters into our natural waterways. Plastics will enter into our rivers and some of the plastic will float its way to the ocean. Some of this plastic eventually makes its way to the GPGP (A LOT OF IT - 80,000 metric tons to be exact, and this is just one of five plastic zones!) Now this patch isn’t some island you can visit and walk on. It looks a little more like this:

Plastic waste in the Pacific ocean

Plastic waste in the Pacific ocean

Heaps and heaps of netting, plastic and all of our TRASH floating at the surface of the pacific ocean. This is especially concerning, considering the number of animals that feed off the top of the ocean’s surface, ingesting more plastic than food when they do… 180x more plastic than food to be exact.

I share this research with you to show you the gravity of what my generation and future generations face in the years to come.

We as a society have to take considerable strides to change the ways in which we consume and produce waste in order to clean up our rivers, oceans and the natural environment. There are amazing organizations like The Ocean Cleanup working to make sense of just how much plastic is out there, and cleaning up our environment as they collect data about this issue. But we don’t have to be a part of an environmental organization to make change. We can do things from the comfort of our own home, implementing relatively straightforward and easy best practices by being conscious about the products we buy and what happens to them after we’re done using them. We are responsible for managing our waste. Trash doesn’t just disappear after we throw it into the garbage bin.

When we look at this mantra - reduce, reuse, recycle… we should prioritize our sustainability practices in the same order of these words. First, we should always try to reduce our waste production when possible. When we cannot reduce our waste, we should seek out methods for reusing products and materials that already exist in our day to day lives. If we have the choice to use a metal fork over one made of single-use plastic, we should. When we can’t reduce our waste, or when we can’t reuse a product or material, then we should try to purchase and use items that can be recycled… and we should always recycle these materials!

Steps toward a more sustainable future:

Step 1: Learn how to recycle properly, do it religiously and maybe even level up and learn to compost.

For recycling to be effective, and to help out our homies at our waste management facilities, we have to know what can be recycled and what cannot… so educate yourself on what can and cannot be recycled. Even better, learn how to compost!

Step 2: If you can, ditch your grocery store chain when purchasing everyday household items that can be obtained at refill stores.

I realize not every community has the privilege of shopping at a refill store. But if you do, it’s a beautiful thing. Refill stores are stores that sell bulk goods (grains, vinegar, olive oil) and items like dish soap, body wash, lotion, and much much more. You can bring in reusable containers and refill on these items instead of purchasing the items in plastic packaging over and over again.

Step 3: See if your community offers recycling centers where you can recycle miscellaneous materials that traditional municipal waste management facilities won’t take.

Things like light bulbs, technology equipment, batteries, plastic bags… these things cannot be recycled by most waste management facilities. I am privileged to live in Colorado where we have a handful of alternative recycling centers that will take these items instead. Some will even pay you for bringing in the items. If your community doesn’t have these alternative recycling centers, there’s still good news. Most major grocery store chains (e.g. King Soopers, Safeway) will take back plastic materials like your plastic bags. See if your chains do, too.

Step 4: When you go shopping, ditch putting your produce in plastic bags (it’s already in your food anyway) and bring reusable bags to the store to put your groceries in.

Marine life ingest plastic when they come to the surface of the ocean to feed

Marine life ingest plastic when they come to the surface of the ocean to feed

Illustration by  @ecowithem_

Illustration by @ecowithem_

We’re not doomed… there’s hope! But it takes being willing to make changes to your patterns and behavior to make a difference. At the end of the day, it’s going to take every single individual recognizing that if we’re going to solve the climate change crisis, we will all have to make changes to our lifestyles. I hope this post offers up new insight for you regarding the global climate change crisis and fun ways for you to challenge yourself to build a deeper, healthier connection to Mother Earth.