We’ve all seen the 3 arrow symbol in the shape of a triangle on all that packaging we collect and most people refer to it as the “recycling symbol”. That is exactly why I decided to write this article. We have been referring to that triangle as the recycling symbol when it was originally intended to urge consumers to reduce first, then reuse, then when all else fails, recycle. Reduce, reuse, recycle. We have been skipping those first two crucial steps and jumping straight for the least beneficial step of them all.
The purpose of this article is to try and explain how recycling became so ineffective and to convince at least one person to start implementing those first two steps. On a planet of over 7 billion and counting, however, I am afraid it is going to take at least 1 million more to make any sort of impact.
BUT I RECYCLE! Says most everyone.
So many times I have found myself engaged in conversation about waste when just as I think things are going well, the person I happen to be conversing with proudly states, “oh we recycle.” I then have to kindly explain how that doesn’t really help the situation and is actually part of the problem. Once I begin to suggest reducing waste in the first place, it is safe to say I have lost their attention and the conversation is over with. Sometimes I find myself back peddling and sugar-coating the situation to spare any hurt feelings from suggesting the person is doing it wrong. After all, who wants to hear they are wrong when they thought they were getting it right? But what good does it do to sugarcoat a very serious problem? None at all. If anything, I’ve just given that person every reason to not recycle because, well, I basically told them there’s no point. Nevertheless, I continue onward even though the task at hand is great.
Getting people to write their representatives about implementing greener solutions to everyday use is hard enough. Getting people to consider reducing their waste seems even harder. Surrendering is no longer an option though, and we need to keep having these conversations regardless of how uncomfortable it may be for some.
WHERE DID THE THREE R’s COME FROM?
Finding out exactly who came up with Reduce, Reuse, Recycle or when it was introduced has proven to be a bit difficult to pinpoint, but I am pretty sure it was created in 1970 by University of Southern California student Gary Anderson as part of a contest tied to the very first Earth Day. We have known about our waste problem for almost 50 years and we have literally done nothing about it. If anything, we’ve made it worse. Thanks, single-use plastic inventors of the 1950’s and neoliberalism of the 1980’s!
WHY DON’T WE IMPLEMENT THEM?
I am not an expert. However, I am a thinker and have my own idea of why we don’t attempt to implement those first two ‘R’s. For one, we aren’t taught to. As long as I can remember it has always been recycle, recycle, recycle. Kids aren’t taught conservation or the importance of protecting the planet in school and since parents weren’t taught that either, it has just gotten lost in the shuffle of our everyday, overworked, stressed out, busy lives. Since it was never implemented in the previous generation, it doesn’t get handed down.
There’s never any time!
Waste reduction is literally a lifestyle change, and who has the time or patience for that? I know people with dishwashers who still insist on disposable plates and cutlery. We have been fed the idea that we are too busy to even place a plate and fork into the machine that washes the dishes for us. Holy crap we are screwed.
consumerism is the American way and convenience is king
Consumerism in the United States is a part of our culture. We are constantly bombarded with advertisements and messages reminding us we have no time. So when you see something marketed as “convenient”, who wouldn’t reach for that product instead of making it yourself? You can buy anything you need ready to go to get you through your day. We can now order our groceries online and have them delivered to us, a service that is great for someone physically unable to shop for themselves, but overwhelmingly used by able-bodied people who don’t have time or simply don’t want to shop for themselves.
In America, convenience is king and the cheaper the better, especially when it comes to “things”. That IKEA dresser you bought broke? No problem. It doesn’t cost much so we’ll just throw it away and get a new one. Gone are the days of spending money on quality items to keep for most of your life and simply fix when it breaks. Or the gadgets! Oh those gadgets. You can buy a breakfast sandwich maker instead of frying an egg while your English muffin toasts because who has 5 minutes for that? I guarantee that sandwich maker will take longer. Not to mention the space it takes up. But you run out of room and so you just buy a bigger house so you can buy more things to use once and toss away.
It’s a vicious cycle and oh so American. There’s not enough time to fry an egg and toast a muffin. That’s because we are overworked. In the 1930’s, an economist by the name of John Maynard Keynes predicted his grandchildren would be working 15 hour work weeks. With all the advancements in technology, we should be working less. Unfortunately, that is very un-American. We are kept busy, stressed, and poor and left with no time to really think about how life could be if we demanded better. But that’s for another article. I bring this up because it all goes back to why we can’t take the time to do things the “less convenient” way and significantly reduce our waste which we are in such dire need of doing.
OUT OF SIGHT OUT OF MIND
We’ve all seen the photos of trash washed up on the banks of a river in India, or the great garbage patch some people think doesn’t actually exist. But there is a disconnect for many people when it comes to seeing something in a photograph rather than in person. I was on my way home from the grocery store where I suffered a silent anxiety attack watching the amount of plastic bags being used for the woman in front of me. On my way home I looked around me and noticed how clean the busy street and lawns were. Not a piece of garbage in sight! No wonder people don’t realize the garbage issue. We are so good at hiding it. Realistically we are just really good at shipping our trash overseas and leaving that mess for China until earlier this year when they started refusing our waste. So now that Chine won’t take our recyclables of our hands, they will most likely just end up in a landfill. Is that enough to get you to reconsider your waste? I will assume not.
IT IS BECOMING LESS OF A VIABLE SOLUTION
Recycling received a slow start in the 70’s with bottle returns. By the 90’s, many municipalities began offering curb-side pick-up, but even in the new millennium, a good portion of America is still expected to take their own recycling to the nearest recycling center. I know for a fact, people in these areas were not taking the initiative to transport their recyclables to these centers, although some were.
Aiding in our own recycling programs was the shipping of our waste to China to be recycled into items such as new plastic products. Unfortunately, China realized this was no longer profitable and began refusing our crap.
Another issue with American recycling is that we don’t do it right. Did you know you can’t recycle a greasy pizza box? That’s because the paper is contaminated. Lids, straws, cutlery, are not recyclable yet I know people think they are. And if you have a plastic container that is recyclable, you need to clean it out. Otherwise, it will contaminate the rest of the items and those are no longer recyclable. You can read more about how to properly recycle here.
With China no longer accepting our trash, and the fact that we don’t really know how to properly recycle, most of our recyclables are ending up in the trash anyway. We simply consume way too much.
SOMETHING’S GOTTA GIVE
I would never shame someone for not “getting” the importance of reducing waste. I can’t make anyone do anything they don’t want to do, and at a time when we are very self-centered (to be clear I understand there is a reason for that and it has to do with our programming) making someone feel bad for their everyday decisions is just a bad idea. The last thing we need is more people rebelling and deliberately doing unsustainable things just to stick it to the environmentalists. The people who see the problems and want change need allies — more like an army.
There are ways to suggest certain lifestyle changes. Show off your new reusable produce bags and check out shops such as Life Without Plastic. Give a public shout out to the new Kleen Kanteen you bought for water refills. Complement your local coffee shop who was wiling to fill your own to-go cup instead of just taking the throw away cup they normally give. Find an awesome outfit at the thrift store and shamelessly show that off. And definitely make an effort to food prep for the work week. There are a ton of recipes online for quick, easy, and healthy meals. It will become routine.
I only mention a few ways someone can reduce their waste. What we really need to be doing is vote with our wallets, vote for the candidates who have shown a genuine concern for the environment and social well-being of all Americans, and be annoyingly diligent at writing your representatives! Join Facebook groups to stay up to date on certain actions you can perform. There are groups out there who organize and take it to their state capitol. That is what needs to happen. We need global mobilization of citizens around the world demanding change. There is over 7 BILLION of us. The amount of major polluters pale in comparison. We have to stop letting these companies get away with poisoning us and our planet and we need to hold our governments accountable when it comes to certain policy. Pay attention to what is going on at the city and state level and push those in charge to do right by the people.
I implore people to reduce their waste however best they can, but let’s not forget it shouldn’t be up to us to clean up the mess our governments have allowed. It’s time we demand better by the people we pay with our own hard-earned money.