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What’s the problem with recycling?

So many people get caught up in the recycle part of that old adage, “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.” Have you noticed it’s the last part of the statement? The last part. That should tell you something.

RRR
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I think people get hung up on recycling for two reasons: it’s easy and it’s advertised.

The marketing campaigns and city-sponsored programs made that a slam dunk. But the thing is, that is on the low end of the spectrum when it comes to actually making a difference.

We’ve all heard stories about how you separate your recycling and then when it gets to the dump or the processing plant, they just throw it all in together anyway. Or that if one little contaminate gets into the recycling that should have been there, the plant will just toss the lot into the dump because they can’t process it. I certainly hope those are just urban legends, but they are probably at least partly true.

Even aside from the idea that just because you put something in the recycle bin at home, doesn’t mean it goes where you want it to. We still have to consider the process of breaking that product down and creating a whole new product. It’s expensive and energy consuming.

Let’s compare recycle to the two, often overlooked, other components of the adage.

Recycle

  • Buy a new product, throw it (or the package) into a recycling bin, and then buy another new product.
  • Lather, rinse, repeat for eternity. (You can see why marketers and manufacturers love this option)

You keep spending money on a new item over and over. The factories keep burning energy churning out new products. The recycling plants keep processing all the waste. That’s a Lose-Win-Win situation, and you are the loser.

Factory Smoke Stacks
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Manufacturing and the recycling process both create waste and pollution

Reduce

  • Buy less
  • Use less

Saves you money, saves energy from lower production and processing time, saves space in landfills.

Reuse

  • Buy one thing and then use it again and again.

Saves you money, saves energy from lower production and processing time, saves space in landfills.

Hopefully, you can see the advantages of the reduce and reuse part of the equation: they save you money.

If you’re still wondering how this saves you money, think about just the packaging. Every time you buy a new product you pay for the packaging, again.

Let’s consider bottled water – this is a product that blows my mind when I think about it too hard.

Every 20-ounce bottle of water comes in its own package (the plastic bottle) with a lid and label to show the brand.

You pay for:

  • The water in the bottle (which you could get free elsewhere)
  • The plastic to hold the bottle (which you will proudly recycle so that it can be destroyed and made into a new plastic bottle or widget)
  • The brand name (because water needs a brand?)

A gallon of water is 128 liquid ounces, so roughly six and a half bottles. If you pay even a single dollar for that bottle of water you are paying $6.50 per gallon of water … How much is gas these days?

And that’s a cheap bottle of water! Most people are probably paying double what they would for milk or gas for something they can get FOR FREE!!!

Seriously, my brain hurts!

If you want to learn more about the true cost of bottled water, here is a great video by the Story of Stuff team

There are a number of great products out there that could be used to put free water in over and over and over again. If you’re worried about purity, you can buy a bottle with a filter that can be reused 300 times for under $10. Think of the savings!

Other ways to reduce and reuse

There are so many other ways to reuse and reduce.

  • Buy and sell used items that are still usable on sites like eBay, Mercari, OfferUp or Facebook Marketplace.
  • Get crafty. Go to Pinterest or Instagram and find some of the amazing lifehacks that will help you reuse and upcycle things you already have.
  • Use what you have. Instead of buying some specialized tool or product, see what you have around the house already, and use it!