Reduce, reuse, recycle. You’ve read or said this many times before in your life, but it’s important to note the order of these three actions. Often times the first action item people think of is recycling as a way to improve sustainability and probably rightfully so. The recycling system is one of the most visual, already in place systems of reducing waste in the landfill that we have as a human society. The increase in efficiency and large number of recycling systems in many places is something that can be applauded. The way we recycle can and should always need revision, but it’s good to at least have a system that tries to reuse waste products.
Before applauding the recycling system, though, reduce and reuse should come to mind first. There actually is a reason those words go in order and recycling should be thought of last because it uses the most resources of all three. Often times when items are put into a recycling bin they cannot be recreated to the same value they were the first time they were produced. In addition to the downscaling of the material, it also takes a lot of energy to reprocess recycled materials.
So yes, recycle, but think about consumption in the order of the catchy three Rs. First, think of reducing. This means reducing the amount of things we consume as a whole. By reducing the amount of waste generated that is produced from the very beginning, the amount of material that needs to be reused and recycled is reduced. For example, plastic is made from petroleum. A lot of people recycle plastic to be reused, but there is also a lot of new plastic that is still being produced and put into the market. So that means that there is still petroleum being extracted to produce that new plastic (and probably to help process it too). Plastic is in so many different materials, but is made from an unsustainable, nonrenewable resource, so reducing it should be more of a priority than recycling it.
Next, think reuse. Though not first, I think this R is the most fun. It means that once a material is extracted from the earth, it should be used to its highest potential, so literally anything to reuse what was taken. That could mean a reusable bag at the grocery store, making a craft out of trash, or having a reusable water bottle.
After reduce and reuse have been thought about, then recycling should come into play. Then we can be excited about having efficient recycling systems. Before then, though, some restructuring of how we think about consumption has to be done. This is where a fourth R that is sometimes added comes in: rethink. Rethink the way our society consumes massive amount of materials every day, what inefficient economic systems perpetuate mass consumption, and what collectively can be done to change those systems.
Erica Bjelland is a senior Global Studies and Environmental Studies double major hailing from Decorah, IA. She likes to keep her iCal full by being co-president of the Student Environmental Alliance (SEA), a member of the President’s Sustainability Council and Student Government Association, and a bassist in the Concordia Orchestra. When she’s not living off her calendar, Erica spends time learning guitar, running, drinking coffee, fan-girling over Aldo Leopold, and discovering new ways to cook black beans.