Reduce, Reuse, Reframe

“Why aren’t these recycling bins full?” It’s a slow afternoon in between classes and my friend is looking dismissively into one of the many recycling bins on campus. “This is supposed to be such a green campus, you’d think these things would be piled up with recycling,” he says.

Normally, I’d probably just write off stuff like this as my friend being in a bad mood or lacking caffeine, but it’s actually something I’ve heard in different forms before. There is this general belief that more recycling equals better sustainability. Often times, when someone asks me what the number one thing you can do for the Earth is, it shocks them when I don’t say “recycle.”

Now don’t get me wrong: recycling is important. It is much, much better to recycle than to throw everything away. It is difficult to imagine some of the time scales that we use when talking about the breakdown of recyclable materials. But recycling is not a magic bullet. When you toss something into the recycling bin, you’re sending it off to be processed. That can be a messy and expensive undertaking, and the amount of recyclable materials we find ourselves sending can become overwhelming when viewed in aggregate. Whenever you hear those three familiar “R’s”— Reduce, Reuse, Recycle— there is a reason why recycling comes last.

Reducing your consumption of single use materials and reusing what you can is far more effective and efficient. Think of how many water bottles are saved from going through a processing plant because of the number of people who have chosen to instead carry their own water bottle. Now imagine the number of takeout containers that are unnecessary because people have been carrying dish bags and bento boxes. Plastic usually isn’t made of things that are readily available— imagine all of that extraction, all of those limited resources that could stay in the ground because our overall consumption of plastic has decreased. How much cleaner a world could that be?

Recycling is great, and if you are not doing it, you should be. But it should be the very last stop on the road to a sustainable future— the “break glass if” emergency exit before a thousand years in a landfill. It should not be the beginning and end of your footprint reduction. We should be reframing the way that we view these practices: reduce as much as you can, reuse when possible, recycle if you must.

And one more benefit that my friend had never considered: Reducing your consumption of these single use materials means having to take the recycling out less often.

Jasmine Neosh is a student at College of Menominee Nation where she studies sustainability.

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