The items people throw out all take energy to make; many of them are not biodegradable and may take centuries to break down. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Americans produced 4.3 lbs. of trash per person per day in 2009 (see References 2, page 1). Reducing, reusing and recycling -- the three Rs -- are the ways consumers can minimize the volume of waste they generate.
Reducing is the first and most effective of the three Rs (see References 1). It means reducing your consumption or buying less. Designing items like plastic bottles in ways that use less material is another way to reduce consumption. Using steel cutlery instead of plastic utensils, buying used goods, mending clothes instead of buying new ones and consuming less electricity are all examples of ways you can reduce in your own life.
Rather than throwing out items like clothing or food jars, consumers can find new uses for them -- and thereby reduce their consumption of new resources. Composting, using jars to store beverages or leftover food, and trading or selling used DVDs rather than throwing them out are all examples of ways people can reuse. Reusing is the second most effective of the three Rs; like reducing, it avoids creating waste rather than trying to recycle it once it's already there (see References 1 and 3).
Recycling is the third of the three Rs. Recycling extracts valuable materials from items that might otherwise be considered trash and turns them into new products. Communities have a variety of recycling programs, such as curbside pickup of recyclables, drop-off centers, buy-back centers that pay you for valuable items and deposit-refund programs (see References 1). Deposit-refund programs, which include a deposit as part of the product price, refund consumers when they recycle such items as soda cans and plastic bottles (see References 4). As a consumer, you can also help recycling by purchasing products made from recycled material, such as toilet paper made from recycled pulp.
Why Is It Important?
Manufacturers extracting natural resources, such as bauxite or aluminum ore, and refining them to make products use energy in the process. Often, burning fossil fuels generates this energy. When people throw those items away, they send them to landfills where they may take centuries or longer to break down completely. Reducing, reusing and recycling help reduce humanity's environmental footprint, carbon dioxide emissions and energy use and limits the amount of landfill space people create. These savings can be substantial; recycling aluminum uses only 5 percent of the energy required to refine aluminum (see References 5). That's why the three Rs are the basic tenets of modern environmentalism.
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; Municipal Solid Waste in the United States: 2009 Facts and Figures; December 2010
- Natural Resources Defense Council: The Three R's Still Rule
- R3 Consulting Group, Inc; Final Report: Evaluating End-of-Life Beverage Container Management Systems for California; Clarissa Morawski; May 2009
- "Chemical Principles, the Quest for Insight, 4th Edition"; Peter Atkins and Loretta Jones; 2008
Based in San Diego, John Brennan has been writing about science and the environment since 2006. His articles have appeared in "Plenty," "San Diego Reader," "Santa Barbara Independent" and "East Bay Monthly." Brennan holds a Bachelor of Science in biology from the University of California, San Diego.
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