Revamping the 3 Rs: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle... Repair and Rethink! (for our kids' sake)
In the 2010s, we conscious consumers and avid recyclers have so many choices. There are earth-friendly dishwashing soaps, herbal remedies for the common cold, and even biodegradable compost bin liners... all available at the local supermarket! Not only are these products available, but mainstream companies have recognized that green products sell better, and are changing practices to match consumer demand. There are even entire urban communities who have initiated "plastic bag bans", requiring customers to either bring their own shopping bag or be charged at the register for a bag. Times have changed since the hippie movement of the 70s and the granola-munching craze of the 90s. And yet, the tenets of those movements remain useful and modern for us today.
Take, for instance, the ever-popular slogan "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle". There are songs, classroom lessons, animated movies, and children's stories which embrace this, and encourage the next generation of youngsters to do likewise. Getting kids to see the recycle sign as friendly, familiar, and omnipresent in daily life can only help the cause.
Let us revisit the 3 Rs already out there, and then explore some new Rs on the block.
To reduce means to have less, or remove excess. In the case of green living, it means quite simply that we don't need everything that media and society tell us we need. Special synthetic foam equipment which shapes ab muscles, double plastic bags around pre-peeled baby carrots shipped from across the country, a television in every room of the house... just because we see others who make these consumer choices, they aren't automatically the right choices to make! To reduce means buying less, consuming less, and ultimately generating less waste that gets put back into the earth. It is a fine goal, and one that everyone can meet in incremental steps, making small choices with a big impact.
If we are consuming fewer things, the next logical step is to get more life out of the things we do have. To reuse means to use again and again. If a child has 20 toys in the toy bin, do all the toys get reused on a regular basis? If she isn't using all the toys, who else might use them? Some parents encourage their children to cycle through toys, giving away less-used toys to gracious, underprivileged families. Other parents may organize a garage sale or "toy-swap" in the neighborhood. The cowboy action figure that Junior begged to have, played with for years, and has now been replaced with computer games and the dating world... that cowboy deserves greener pastures, and some younger child down the block may give him a happier home!
Car tires reused as outdoor chairs in Thailand
So far, we have reduced what we have, reused what we can, and now it's time to get a little help from natural and man-made processes. Recycling involves putting something which we can not easily reuse through a process which makes it into a useable product. Starting from the supermarket shelf, a shopper may buy a can of tuna, take it home in a reusable shopping bag, and feed it to Fido. After that, how can we reuse this can? Artists make excellent use of such things as tin cans, soda bottles, wine corks, and they create bold and topical works of art. I once saw a life-size bull made of discarded corned beef cans!
But for the non-artists among us, we are more likely to put food cans into the recycle bin and let the recycling services get to work. The steel tuna can will be sorted out (probably by a giant magnet) and melted down, and may return to the man-made world in the form of another can, parts for your car, durable drink bottles, or even a lawnmower.
It is good to remember that the recycling process of aluminum and paper products is much simpler than for plastic. In fact, plastic products marked with a recycling sign are not necessarily going to be recycled. Generally speaking, the higher the number, the more intensive the recycling treatment process, and the less likely that the product will be recycled locally, if at all (Number 7 indicates "other plastic material", which often means it can't even be recycled unless also marked as "compostable"!). Number 1 and 2 plastic products are still the better choice for savvy consumers.
Recycling bins in Romania
The missing R: Repair
In the culture of consumption, the old adage still holds true: "If it ain't broke, don't fix it". But what happens when it is "broke"? I would say that society tends to encourage us to toss out the broken item and buy a new one- but "remove and replace" is a philosophy which has no place in a green lifestyle. For things we have reused until they break, there is another step before we consider recycling... Repair!
Broken back-pack straps, watchbands and chair legs can all be easily repaired. There are countless resources for advice on how best to do this, starting with a simple Google search or a trip into the local craft store. Less than 100 years ago, people from a wide social spectrum repaired everyday items as a matter of necessity, and we would do well as a society to embrace their philosophy.
The central R: Rethink
The Rs have so far encouraged us to want fewer things, use the things we have, repair them when they break, and then recycle them into another thing we can use. But all of these Rs are defined by the culture we live in, and it can be difficult to know just how literally to take them. The Western consumer world, for instance, tells us that it is acceptable to have your clothes repaired, but less reasonable to reuse old car tires as planter boxes. Media tells us to replace our gas-guzzling SUV with a hybrid SUV, although a greener choice would be to choose a smaller car (or better yet, no car at all!). Supermarkets stock organic, environmentally-friendly products, but in non-recyclable packaging.
It is a challenging world to navigate for the green consumer, and this is where the central R, Rethink, comes into play. Each generation needs to rethink the culture created by the previous generation- My great-grandparents' generation used radioactive toothpaste, and my grandparents were told by their doctors to smoke cigarettes for good health! But I digress... In terms of green living, we can all use a little less exposure to what media tells us we need, and a little more time rethinking our everyday choices. Ask your family, your children, your peers, your parents... Which of their small acts has great environmental impact? How do they make a difference, one step at a time?
Together as a community, we can all rethink our actions and recreate an environmentally-conscious world. The best news is, just as for the original 3 Rs, all positive change starts with you. So many of us already Reduce, Reuse, Repair and Recycle in some small way, and we can all continue to move towards a greener future.