Posted by: thediygeochemist | April 18, 2009

making a difference, part II

You’ve probably heard or read it a million times: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.

People are familiar with the saying, but maybe they don’t understand that it means what exactly what it says: our first goal should be to reduce the amount of stuff we use; barring that, we should find a way to reuse things so they don’t need to be disposed of; recycling waste should be a last-ditch effort. And yet most governmental efforts focus on recycling.

So, what’s wrong with recycling? Well, the sad fact of the matter is that, even though recycling keeps us from using new raw materials, it requires a fair amount of energy–a commodity we already use far more than we should. Of course, the UnlikelyFamily recycles as much as possible; but we have made it a goal to reduce and reuse whenever we can.

When people talk about reusing things they generally think of such things as washing and reusing aluminum foil instead of throwing it out immediately. However, when your goal is to reuse as much as possible, you try to focus on buying and using things which are as sturdy as possible. For example:

  • Instead of buying a half-liter bottle of Crystal Geyser and then refilling it over and over, it’s better to invest in a good-quality Nalgene water bottle.
  • Instead of storing a leftover casserole in the refrigerator with aluminum foil over it, it’s better to buy a casserole dish that comes with it’s own reusable plastic lid. (We only use aluminum foil a couple of times a year, nowadays.)
  • Any paper which is only printed on one side gets tossed into the scratch paper drawer for re-use. UnlikelyDad actually opens all those letters we get from hopeful mortgage-refinance companies because they’re frequently only printed on one side. More scratch paper! (I don’t think we’ve ever run out of scratch paper.) We sort all paper into two piles: paper that can go through the printer, and paper that can’t (due to being folded, hole-punched, etc.)
  • Instead of getting plastic or paper bags at the store, bring your own cloth bags. (We’re still working on this one–it’s hard to remember to put the bags back in the car after unloading them.)

Of course, what’s even better is to cut back on the amount of stuff you use in the first place, or, alternatively, buy things that consume less energy in manufacturing that others. For example:

  • Clothing: how much does one person need, anyway? (This is a hard one for me!)
  • Food–stop eating processed foods.
  • Don’t buy Happy Meals for your kids–the toys are cheap things that break and will be thrown out anyway. In fact, just ditch the cheap toys altogether and go for things that last.
  • Don’t buy people 1,000,000 presents each at birthdays or Christmas. We try to give gifts of intangibles (e.g. memberships to museums, trips to the mini-golf place, donations to favorite charities) or edibles as much as possible.

One complaint I’ve heard is that, if people don’t buy as much stuff, the American economy will collapse. I have two things to say to that:

  1. Any economy that’s based on damaging the environment is not something I want to be part of.
  2. I would rather pay $100 for a well-made product that would last 10 years than $10 each for a product that needs replacement every 2 years. I would also gladly pay twice as much for a product that can be repaired as opposed to one that has to be completely thrown out every time it breaks.

Before we turned into a throwaway society, the American economy wasn’t any worse than it is now. Americans are ingenious enough to adapt to change again.


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