We've all heard the mantra, "Reduce, reuse and recycle." You may wonder what it means or how to incorporate these principles into your daily life. It's not as complicated as you may think --- the "three Rs" all complement each other and together create a system that can shrink your household's carbon footprint.
The most essential way to reduce waste is to avoid creating it in the first place. Unfortunately, current consumer behavior is trending in the wrong direction. According the the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, each person created 2.7 pounds of waste each day in 1960. Today that number is 4.3 pounds. (See References 2) Some companies, however, are getting more efficient with their product packaging to save resources. Plastic 2-liter soft drink bottles are one example. Manufacturers have reduced the weight of the plastic used in these bottles by 0.6 ounces over the last 30 years. While this may seem insignificant, it keeps 250 million pounds of plastic from becoming part of the waste stream. (See References 2) Likewise, consumers can reduce simply by cutting back and making small changes. Cutting back on water and energy use at home is a good place to start. When making a purchase, look for durable products that will last a long time, rather than something that might need to be replaced quickly. (See References 1)
Reuse refers to several things. It can mean investing in items that can be reused --- for example, using cloth tote bags when you shop instead of asking for plastic bags, or buying reusable food containers, such as a thermal coffee mug or a reusable water bottle. (See References 4) It also means looking for ways to repurpose discarded items, especially those that cannot be recycled and will end up sitting in a landfill for centuries. Consider repairing an item rather than throwing it out. If you're upgrading an appliance or gadget, see if you can donate the old one to someone who can use it. If a product has served its purpose, look for alternative uses. For example, clean used jars can be used to store leftovers or odds and ends. (See References 1)
Recycling also keeps usable materials out of the landfill. Objects that might be considered waste are turned back into raw materials that can be used in the manufacture of other items. Recycling consists of three basic steps. The first step is collection and processing. Communities handle this in various ways. For example, some may offer curbside recycling, while others may have central drop-off facilities. The recyclables are then sorted, cleaned and turned into marketable raw materials --- for example, paper is turned into pulp and plastics are melted down. Step two consists of manufacturing the recycled materials into new products. Step three occurs when consumers purchase recycled products. This completes the recycling loop. (See References 3) As a consumer, you can participate by properly recycling as much waste as possible, and by looking for products that contain recycled content. Often, products will tout this as a selling point.
Following the "three R's" has several advantages, including cutting greenhouse gas emissions, conserving energy and resources and reducing the need for landfills and incineration. Recycling also protects U.S. manufacturing jobs, according to the EPA. (See References 3)
- National Resources Defense Council; The 3Rs Still Rule; Cheryl Eisenberg; February 2009
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: Reduce and Reuse
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: Recycling
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: What You Can Do on the Go
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; Municipal Solid Waste Generation...; EPA; December 2010
Based in the Midwest, Bethany Wieman has been writing articles about gardening, DIY, finance, travel and sustainability for more than 10 years. She was featured in the book "The Complete Guide to Growing Vegetables, Flowers, and Herbs from Containers." Wieman's professional background is in marketing, working with such brands as Swiss Army, Timberland and Callaway Golf. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in English.
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