The Three Rs
Everyone has heard of the 3 R’s: Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. Out of these, recycling has definitely taken the spotlight thanks to efforts to popularize the practice over the last 30 years or so. Now, municipal recycling programs are common place and approximately 30% of municipal solid waste is recycled instead of ending up in a landfill. Recycling is playing a huge role in the conservation of natural resources and the proportion of our waste that can be and is being recycled continues to rise.
So, what about the other 2 Rs? Believe it or not, they play an even larger role in conservation than recycling. Although recycling is a very important piece of the waste reduction puzzle and generally yields positive economic and environmental benefits, it takes huge inputs of energy, water and money and can still result in waste products that have to be disposed.
Reducing the amount and toxicity of products that you purchase is the very best way to reduce your individual environmental impact as a consumer. This doesn't mean you have to give up essentials and adopt an ascetic lifestyle, but it does mean exercising your judgment. Do you really need a 3rd pair of black heels, or 2 televisions in the house, or a giant SUV for taking the kids to school? If you ask yourself these questions before you make a purchase, you may find many ways to use fewer products and decrease your impact without reducing your quality of life at all.
Another important action that can be taken is to reuse items before considering buying new ones. When you buy new plastic food storage containers, oil has to be extracted from the ground, processed into plastic and then transported to the store. Instead of buying new containers, consider reusing yogurt tubs and peanut butter jars that might otherwise become waste products. Keeping those resources in rotation will reduce the demand for new ones and avoid the costs of recycling. Thrift stores and local classified ads are also a great way to acquire anything from clothes to appliances to furniture to cars that have been gently used but still have a lot of life left.
For more information on reducing and reusing resources, consult the Environmental Protection Agency's page on Source Reduction and Reuse.