For decades, we’ve heard the mantra “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.” In practice, we often focus mostly on recycling, which actually represents the least effective way to solve our growing waste problems.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge proponent of recycling and its many benefits, including reduced use of raw materials, reduced emission of greenhouse gases, energy savings and reduced volume going into our landfills.
But using less stuff in the first place — buying fewer items, selecting items with less packaging, repairing rather than replacing things, sharing seldom-used items — makes the biggest difference. By paying attention and making careful choices, we can cut down on the amount of trash and potential waste that we create.
For example, simply buy the largest container of something such as condiments and pasta and, if necessary, measure what you need for everyday use into smaller containers. Avoid single-use items and single-helping packages, which have more packaging for the amount of content than larger ones. Try to avoid items where packaging is three to four times the size of the product itself. Buy fruits and vegetables loose rather than packaged. Opt for cardboard packaging over styrofoam.
Re-use is another way to make a big difference, often more significant than recycling. Recycling processes and re-purposes existing materials into different ones — turning old tennis shoes into sport courts, for example, or single-use plastic bags into reusable bags or carpet. Re-use helps keep down the amount of materials needed in the first place. New things require raw materials, many of which are mined or drilled out of the earth, often accompanied by great harm to the natural landscape and toxic byproducts, and often shipped great distances.
Using less stuff in the first place — buying fewer items, selecting items with less packaging, repairing rather than replacing things, sharing seldom-used items — makes the biggest difference.
According to Austin Resource Recovery, Austin residents dispose of an estimate $11 million in reusable items annually. We can all play a part in changing that.
When I pack my kid’s sandwich for lunch in the plastic bag my loaf of bread came in, I don’t need a new plastic bag. Each time I rinse the bread bag out and use it again, I avoid the need for yet another new bag. Re-using the glass jar that contained store-bought spaghetti sauce to store leftovers avoids the need for a new container.
Turning old washcloths, towels and t-shirts into rags means I don’t need to purchase disposable cleaning cloths or paper towels. Jeans too far gone even to donate can be made into dog toys.
These seem like small actions, but taken by thousands of people collectively, they make a difference.
Austin’s Zero Waste Plan will encourage reuse in several ways. A program called Reuse Austin will salvage reusable items from bulk collection and partner with reuse and resale organizations set up to collect and sell gently-used furniture. Two pilot sites are scheduled to open in 2013. You may have observed a lot of re-use happening naturally during bulk collection; things in reasonably good shape tend to disappear form the curb quickly. It’s sort of like a neighborhood swap meet.
Swap meets are great ideas, too. Hold a school supply swap meet at the end of the school year, or a clothing swap meet at the start of a season. When my three kids were little, I invited over friends with kids of similar ages a few weeks before Halloween. We all brought the costumes lurking in our closets and outfitted our kids with ones new to them.
The Resource Recovery department also plans to establish four Reuse Centers around the city to collect a variety of recyclable, reusable and repairable materials. Bulk collections are scheduled to start going to a reuse center in October of this year. In collaboration with area schools, a teacher’s creative reuse center will collect materials that can be used for instructional aids, student projects, and art projects. No need to wait, though; ask your neighborhood school what sorts of things they can use right now. Magazines, books, small jars and tins, magnets, egg cartons and buttons are some likely answers.
The Resource Recovery department also plans to establish four Reuse Centers around the city to collect a variety of recyclable, reusable and repairable materials.
Many things can be donated rather than thrown away. Remodeling, redecorating, or just spiffing up a room? Habitat for Humanity takes donations of new and used fully functioning building materials such as doors, lumber, hardware, plumbing and lighting fixtures, and tile. (Drop-offs are accepted 9 to 5 Monday through Friday, and 8 to 4 on Saturdays.) As an added benefit, you or your contractor won’t have to pay to put these items in the landfill.
Goodwill Industries funds its job training and other community services by selling donated items. It accepts new and gently-used items including clothing, appliances, electronics, furniture, toys and books. Goodwill partners with Dell to refurbish and reuse or recycle computers. Any brand of computer in any condition can be dropped off at Goodwill locations. Goodwill also accepts donations of vehicles. Most electronics stores take old cell phones.
Many churches and charities also accept donations of clothing and household supplies. Call or stop by to ask what is needed before making a drop-off.
In short, before you buy something new, consider whether you really need it. With every purchase, opt for the least packaging and most durable item. If an item can be repaired for the same or less than the cost of a new one, go for repair. Before you toss something in the trash, think about whether it could be re-used, by someone else for its original purpose, or for an entirely different one.