The three classic “R’s” of energy use and its impact on the environment are reduce, reuse and recycle.
Of these, reducing is the number one priority.
Reducing how much and what exactly you buy is the first step toward using less new stuff, especially when it’s cheap goods that travel a far distance to get on the store shelves. Those cheap goods represent many carbon footprint miles, which means even though what you’re buying seems like a cool new gadget, or helpful tool, it may have already done a heap of damage just polluting its way across the oceans or on long, fossil-fuel heavy truck trips.
Even merchandise that is Fair Trade, however much otherwise well-intentioned it is, often has an enormous carbon footprint getting from way over there to wherever you live. So funky soaps from Tibet that help villagers make a living are nice for the economics of indigenous populations, but they’re not inherently nice to earth, water and air. Far better to buy locally-produced goods, or get into the business of manufacturing locally yourself. This is the key to reducing not only the quantity of what you buy, but the carbon footprint of your own purchasing choices.
Packaging also presents a huge predicament for modern society. Copious amounts of disposable packaging, with all their inks and non-biodegradable housings means more impacts on our soil and water systems, and a huge headache for our landfills and floating trash heaps at sea.
Our aim should be to move back to reusable containers and to grow bulk distribution as the key offering feature in grocery stores and other retail outlets.
Modern industrial cultures have enjoyed the convenience of myriad ready-made cheap goods for over a century.
In the post World War II era, goods came even faster and more furiously as America set out to create its big experiment in sprawl; the suburban project. Soon goods were so cheap that we could trash them whenever we wanted the newer, shinier version.
But more than that, a whole culture of disposability took root on everything from paper towels to plastic baggies to razors to a new outfit every other week to food that we just let rot in our overstuffed refrigerators.
Reusing goods means choosing items that can be washed and used again, such as cloth napkins and dish towels, tools that can be fixed, and hand-me-downs with plenty of useful life left.
We have to make reusing things the acme of cool, and the value of a wise, hip, in-the-know citizen and consumer. So whenever you find you “need” something, ask first if you have it, can fix it, borrow it, share it, or can make it out of existing goods. Always reuse things to lessen your impact on our declining and fragile resources, to save money, and cut your carbon footprint.
Of the three Rs, recycling is the one that gets the most play. Yet in actuality, its the one that does the least for us. I hate to say it, but its true.
Much of the time recycling only leads to well-organized trash that, like other trash, adds to our landfills. Or it’s used to make more products, which is the opposite of reducing, the most important R.
But recycling makes us feel good. It’s the one program that has taken on in the public imagination, particularly in educating the young about the environment. But for recycling to really matter, we need to do more.
Some recycling is great, of course. It leads to post-consumer waste raw materials that are upcycled into paper products, packaging, fleece, carpets and some other goods. But much of it is wasted in a hidden way.
The environmental engineer William McDonough and his partner, the chemist Michael Braungart wrote a book called Cradle to Cradle that describes a new way of thinking about materials usage so that no part is ever wasted. Mirroring the natural world, this approach considers the life and death cycle of materials so that items are always fully recycled to serve another function, just as nature never wastes a thing. If our whole use of goods was this way, that would be good!
That’s where a fourth R comes in. Repurposing. Not all recycling has to be about sorting your garbage for curbside pickup. You can recycle by repurposing materials yourself, whether for artistic output or practical ends. This encompasses reducing and reusing and recycling into a new form, right within your own domain of creativity and usefulness, again, saving money and engaging your whole self in the process. If our entire culture was this way, many of our most severe predicaments would be addressed.
And some say that renew makes the fifth R. After all, when you shift your perspective to include the life cycle of everything you get in touch with the vibe of birth, death and rebirth. So you can also renew the world by planting trees and foods, using mushrooms for water runoff and pollution mitigation, and renew your health through more walking, bicycling and eating healthier foods already in their natural state that are grown nearby, with a much smaller carbon footprint.
These are the things I’m always writing about on Lindsay’s List. Please use the contact page to share any ideas you have for a daily entry on the list.
–Lindsay Curren, Lindsay’s List