Who else remembers the well-worn mantra: ‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle’? It was drilled in to us time and time again in grade school. The first two, ‘Reduce and Reuse,’ didn’t really mean much, or seem that exciting to the average 11 year old. But it didn’t matter, the only one that anyone seemed to focus on was recycling.
Why? Well first of all, it seemed way easier than the other two. Simply put, recycling represented this bin that you can throw packaging, old notebooks, pop cans; and as if like some less-appealing version of the tooth fairy, a magical truck would haul it away before you woke up in the morning.
Then if you had any afterthought about it, which was rare, you simply assumed that it was all taken to some spiffy factory that takes in junk and spits out shiny new items.
Recycling has been one of few environmental initiatives that has seen massively wide-scale support by the general public. Maybe it helps us feel 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.
And just like that, consumer guilt absolved. Gosh it feels good to do my part!
But we all know deep down: it’s not really a great solution.
In other words, is recycling just a get-out-of-jail free card? Can we truly consume with reckless abandon so long as the packaging it arrived in can go in the blue bin?
Let’s take a look at the cold, hard stats. 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 35.5 million people, that’s about 700 kg of total waste, with 230 kg of that being recycled material per person every year.
So we’re disposing of a freaking absurd amount of garbage (25 million elephants’ weight worth in Canada alone) every year! And even though some of that is recycled, it isn’t anywhere close to the scale of action needed to offset the impact of our out-of-control consumer habits.
So what is wrong with recycling, exactly?
Bea Johnson, my Zero Waste hero, recently did a TED talk about the hidden perils of recycling. According to Bea, when we buy or accept packaging, we condone:
– resource depletion,
– use of taxpayer $$ to process this waste,
– toxic materials like BPA in plastic to be produced
At the end of the day, what we put in the bin is out of our control, its fate uncertain. And if something is recyclable, whatever it gets turned in to is likely not recyclable. It’s just slowing down its ultimate fate at the landfill.
So looking forward, the solution is not recycling more, but consuming less. Here’s Bea’s tips towards a more zero-waste lifestyle:
1. Recycling should be the last resort
We gotta quit this packaging habit.
You don’t have to buy stuff with packaging. If you start looking, you’ll quickly realize non-packaged stuff exists everywhere: second-hand, bulk, farmers markets; and zero-waste markets and package-free aisles in regular supermarkets that have been popping up all over the world.
Bea says you’ll quickly develop tunnel vision: “I no longer see what’s packaged, only unpackaged.”
On top of reducing waste, it means what you’re buying is likely healthier, less-refined and hopefully cheaper. Because don’t forget that we’re paying for that packaging, it’s not some friendly, pro-bono service that product companies are providing. If I’m buying Cap’n Crunch, I wanna pay for just Cap’n Crunch, not Cap’n + Box’n Plastic!
2. Packaging adds time and cost to our lives, and it takes up space.
It’s an endless consumer loop, products we buy, along with the box it comes in must be bought, discarded; bought, discarded, and so on, forever and ever. By getting off the treadmill, Bea and her family produce one mason jar of garbage per year! They fix, repair, reuse, repurpose, and buy quality. And she says their lives are better off and more fulfilling for it.
3. There are reusable alternatives for EVERYTHING
Keep an open mind to reusable options, and they’ll start appearing everywhere.
4. It’s not just the act of buying, but accepting freebies
Even if you don’t actively buy packaging, the consumer model is relentless- freebies are everywhere. So for things like business cards, free samples, or junk mail, just say ‘no thanks.’ “Accepting is condoning, just as buying is voting.”