Who else remembers the well-worn mantra: ‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle?’ It was drilled in to us time and time again in grade school. Of course the first two, ‘Reduce and Reuse,’ didn’t really mean much to the average 11 year old. But it didn’t matter, the only really captivating one was ‘Recycling.’
Why? Well first of all, recycling seemed way easier and way more tangible than the other two. Simply put, it’s this bin next to the garbage can where you can throw all sorts of stuff like plastic packaging, old notebooks and pop cans. Then, like some less-appealing version of the tooth fairy, a magical truck comes to haul it away before you wake up in the morning.
If you had any afterthought about it, which was rare, you’d simply assume it’d all been taken to some spiffy factory that takes in wrapping paper and clamshell containers and spits out shiny new items.
In doing so we’re left feeling like noble stewards of the land, doing our humble part for the planet by providing my empty can of beans and folded up Amazon boxes for some higher re-purpose.
Just like that, consumer guilt absolved. Gosh it feels good to do my part!
Whoa, whoa whoa. It’s that easy? Is recycling really a get-out-of-jail-free card?
In other words, can I consume with reckless abandon so long as the packaging it arrived in can go in the blue bin?
Well if our current consumption rates are any indication, the answer is no. In Canada in 2015, we collectively disposed of 25,103,034 tonnes of waste, 1/3 of which was diverted either by compost or recycling. With a population of 35 million people, that’s about 700 kg of total waste per person, per year, of which only 230 kg of that is recycled or composted!
So while recycling certainly makes some difference, a truly effective path forward isn’t recycling more, it’s to consume and dispose of waaaay less.
But first, why recycling itself isn’t all that great.
Bea Johnson, my Zero Waste hero, recently did a TED talk on why waste reduction, and not recycling, is the best path forward. According to her presentation, by buying or accepting packaging, you condone:
– resource depletion,
– supporting an unresolved recycling system,
– use of taxpayer $$ to process the waste,
– the creation of toxic materials like BPA in plastic
– and tons of energy to process it all.
She says the recycling system also lacks regulation to effectively manage the complex coordination needed between manufacturers, consumers, and municipalities around the world.
The result? Your empty yogurt container can get lost in a convoluted, energy intensive process, potentially travelling halfway around the world to a place where it’s cheaper to process. Then once it’s remade in to something else, that fancy new product is likely not recyclable. Recycling simply delays the eventual trip to the landfill.
So what do we do instead? Well according to Bea, it simply requires some tweaking of habits and perspective towards a zero waste lifestyle:
1. Maybe convenience packaging isn’t so convenient after all.
At first glance, it seems like a pain to move away from these glorious single-use items: wrappers, plastic bags, to-go containers, coffee cups; they make life easier. Who wants to give that up!?
But if you look closer, they actually cost us more than we think:
– It costs us time. In my tiny condo on the 4th floor, I don’t want to trudge the recycling bin down to the bowels of the earth (re: 2nd storey parkade), nor do I want to make a trip to the depot to drop off plastic bags. For the relatively small initial convenience I get, it’s up to me to deal with it afterwards.
– It costs us space. Did I mention my tiny condo? We have a large bin for recycling and for plastic bags. This stuff takes up precious real estate.
– It costs us money. Don’t forget that we’re paying for that packaging, it’s not some friendly, pro-bono service that companies are providing. In other words, if I’m buying Cap’n Crunch, I wanna pay for Cap’n Crunch, not Cap’n + Box’n Plastic. We also pay considerable property tax and strata fees to haul our enormous amount of recycling away.
– It costs us health. Plastics contain all sorts of weird chemicals, and there’s likely a correlation between more-processed to more- packaging. Buying whole food products not in bags or boxes means healthier eating!
3. There are reusable alternatives for EVERYTHING
Just keep an open mind to the alternatives, and you’ll start seeing reusable items, second-hand stores, bulk food sections, zero waste markets, and even plastic-free aisles in regular supermarkets everywhere you go.
Once you auto-tune your mind to a zero-waste wavelength, your brain turns to tunnel vision for reusable items. Bea says she has selective vision: “I no longer see what’s packaged, only what’s unpackaged.”
3. It’s not just the act of buying, but accepting freebies
The consumer machine is relentless; even if you don’t actively buy stuff, there are still freebies like business cards or samples. “Accepting is condoning, just as buying is voting.” You can just say no, thanks.