You’re probably familiar with the “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” mantra. It’s an easy reminder of ways to avoid waste. The problem comes in when too many people rely on the last part – recycle – and pay too little attention to the first two. There are a number of reasons why recycling isn’t necessarily the right answer when you’re trying to cut back on waste.
1. You don’t need to recycle what you haven’t bought in the first place.
Reduce is first on the list for a very good reason. You aren’t causing as much waste if you just buy less in the first place. In this case, waste include the recycling of excess products and their packaging.
2. Keep using what you’ve got.
Sending something out for recycling just because you want a new version isn’t environmentally friendly. Cell phones are a strong example of this. According to Scientific American, Americans replace their cell phones on average every 22 months. That’s ridiculous. Yes, phone and network features have been changing steadily over the past several years, but how much improvement do you really need?
There are times when it makes some sense to replace something you own and still works with a new version, but it doesn’t happen that often. Older refrigerators and freezers may be inefficient enough to be worth replacing even before they break down, for example, and sometimes cities offer haul away programs for them, and may even pay you a little for them. These programs help ensure that such items are properly recycled.
Shopping bags can be reused, for example, even if they aren’t the ones you buy for that purpose. Gift bags and boxes can be used over and over again, so long as they’re in decent condition.
You can also buy things specifically to replace things you might otherwise recycle after only a use or two. Cloth napkins, cloth diapers, stainless steel drinking bottles, rechargeable batteries and so on can replace things you’d otherwise throw out.
3. Repurpose/reuse it.
Some of the things you might otherwise recycle can be repurposed or reused. I keep a supply of empty glass jars around because they’re just so handy for other things. I can’t keep all of them, so a number still go out for recycling over time, but it’s really nice to have a variety of them on hand for when I need one.
I also save a lot of kind of random stuff for my kids to reuse. My oldest daughter in particular – she’s in a club called Destination Imagination, and reusing items is a great way to stay in budget on each year’s challenge. I can’t tell her what to use or how to use it – that’s against the rules – but I can make it available.
Old clothes can be made into new things. This can be especially nice to do with clothes you’re sentimental about. Some people make old sports jerseys into quilts, for example. For less sentimental things, such as that pair of jeans that has worn out, you can consider making a shopping bag or other practical item, depending on how strong the material is.
Be safe about reuse. Some items aren’t particularly safe for reuse and really are better off being recycled. Containers that have held hazardous materials aren’t your best choice for reuse, as a general rule. Similarly, don’t put anything dangerous into a container that makes it look safe or appealing.
4. Sell it.
So you don’t want to reuse it yourself. So what? Is it something someone else would enjoy reusing? You can sell individual items through eBay, Craigslist or any buy-sell-trade boards for your community you may find on Facebook. You get some money, the buyer gets a product for cheaper than they’d get it new. No recycling required.
You can also have a garage sale if you’ve accumulated a lot of stuff and have the patience to put a price on it and hold the sale. You can make some decent money for your effort this way, depending on what you have.
5. Give it away.
If it’s not worth selling, can you just give it away? Or would you prefer to see how much it helps someone else without money as a consideration?
My sisters and I do this with kids’ clothes, handing them down to each other so that much of what the younger kids wear have been through a few other kids already. The clothes could be worth selling, certainly, but we help each other out by handing clothes down freely.
Freecycle is a great site to use when you just want to give something away. Join your local board and post what you have available.
There are also charities such as Goodwill and the Salvation Army, as well as smaller organizations, that can make use of things you’d like to give away. The advantage to these is that you can get a tax deduction based on the fair market value of the items you donate.
6. Buy used.
When you can, be a part of the reuse cycle by buying used items yourself. Children’s clothes are often a wonderful place to start, but you can often find other good quality items for your home and family at thrift stores, consignment shops,or from companies that make new products from used items. The longer an item can be usefully kept out of the recycling stream, the better it often is for the environment.
Make no mistake, recycling – as in breaking down the old material to make something new – is extremely important. It shouldn’t be your first thought, however. Do your best to reduce your purchases and waste, and to reuse or repurpose things when you can. Then look at recycling.