Updated: Jun 17
For most of my life, I’ve been taught the three R’s: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. While all three of these things have been influential, recycling has always seemed to be at the forefront of society’s sustainability approach.
I continue to recycle as much as I can. Still, I am the first to admit that recycling doesn’t seem to be working anymore. Over the last few years, a lot has changed, and our waste system is broken. Despite these downfalls, more cities are starting to view recycling as the best solution for moving towards a “reuse” economy when more dramatic changes need to be made.
I am not advocating for an end to recycling. Instead, I am advocating for a new way of viewing our consumer habits. I am going to present a new set of R’s that I believe should replace recycling altogether, why it is essential to make these changes in our daily lives, and how we can integrate these actions into our consumer culture.
Why Do We Need to Replace Recycling?
If you ask someone what they do in their daily life to lessen their carbon footprint or help the environment, one of the first things they'll say is most likely “well, I recycle.”
If you hear that someone is not recycling, it is tempting to ask why and even feel capable of shaming them for not caring about the environment.
This sense of do-gooding surrounding recycling has influenced the toxic belief that recycling is the answer to our waste problem. We gravitate towards the action of recycling because it is easy and because it enables us to continue the consumer habits we already have. After all, what’s that harm in buying plastic water bottles? I’m going to recycle them when I’m done.
The issue lies not with our intention, but with what happens when our recyclables are picked up each week. Sure, putting a recyclable item in the recycling bin is still better than putting them in the trash bin. But after we roll out our weekly recycling, it is unknown whether those recyclables are reused, they’re diverted to a landfill, are incinerated, or end up somewhere else, like the ocean.
Unfortunately, the reality is that most of what we think is being recycled is being thrown away or downcycled.
The most recent study I was able to find online about plastic recycling was conducted in 2017 by the American Chemistry Council. There may be a more recent one, and if so, send it to me. I’d love to read it!
In the study, they found that of the 35.4 million tons of recyclable plastic generated in the United States, only 2.9 tons were actually recycled. A small portion of the plastics were combusted while the rest went to landfills. That means that in 2017, of the plastic we used, only about 8.4% of it was reused in our recycling programs.
Now, three years later, I can only imagine that number has either stayed about the same or decreased. After China stopped accepting several recyclables as imports, western nations have struggled to manage their waste even more, and fewer recyclables are being accepted.
The truth of the matter is that “most types of plastic packaging are economically impossible to recycle now and will remain so in the foreseeable future” (GreenpeaceReports). Recycling and reuse claims are falling short on all levels of the supply chain and often end up being false promises from companies to consumers.
In short, now that recycling is no longer profitable for countries or corporations, it is not being implemented or utilized appropriately.
What Can We Do?
It is time to shift our mindset from recycling to reduce, refuse, and rethink.
The idea of reducing has always been a part of our three R system. Although it is the first R in Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle, it is often the one forgotten. One of the reasons “reduce” has been somewhat under the radar in most of our “environmental” education is because it would impact the current economy.
If consumers are continually reducing their intake, then less money is being spent on consumer goods. This wouldn’t be a very effective advertising campaign in the eyes of most companies. The good news is that some companies are on board for change. Patagonia is one example of a forward-thinking company that puts its workers and the environment before profit.
In the past, Patagonia has run a few campaigns to promote an anti-consumer message by asking customers to do something simple: “Don’t Buy This Jacket” or “Don’t Buy This Shirt.”
It seems strange for Patagonia to promote not purchasing their items, but the advertisement was actually to support their Common Threads Initiative. A campaign to encourage everyone to consume less and providing alternatives to buying new.
We can reduce our consumption by only buying new things we really need, and by buying secondhand when possible. The idea of reducing consumption has never been more important. Today, we are starting to see the implications of our hyper-consumerism with climate change, a never-ending cycle of pollution, and endless environmental exploitation.
Reducing consumption also encompasses three other R's: reuse, repair, and repurpose.
While this may seem like a similar concept to reducing consumption, it goes a bit further. Reducing consumption is helpful because we only buy what we need when we need it, and we only buy something after reusing or repairing an item.
Refusing is an all-out boycott of something. Two of the most common boycotts in the environmental movement today are of plastic and animal products.
By saying no to things like single-use plastics, fast fashion, or animal products, you are telling the producers that you no longer have an interest in supporting their corrupt and exploitative practices. It is a way to “vote with your money.”
Many of the environmental issues that we are facing today are a trickle-down from corporate and government systems, making them feel out of control. Refusing to consume when it is appropriate in your life situation is one of the easiest ways to implement an environmentally positive change into your daily life.
The final R I want to discuss is Rethink. I chose this because it is one of the most effective ways I have changed my daily habits to live in a more environmentally sustainable life. It gave me the ability to reevaluate how I see products, waste, and consumption.
Now, I’m not a perfect environmentalist, and I am not yet fully zero-waste. I have confidence I will get there soon, though. I am making these changes because I started to think about every step of the production process of everything I buy, not just what happens after I buy it.
This sounds exhausting to do, but the less you buy, the less exhausting it becomes. It gave me a new sense of appreciation when I knew that I was purchasing a vegetable from California or Mexico because I knew how far it had traveled. It made me reconsider an item in my shopping cart online when I found out it was made and sourced unethically. Rethinking gave me a better understanding of how I used my money.
Taking the time to research the items that I invest my money into was the fastest way for me to cut back on consumption and find higher-quality products that would last longer.
Rethinking your purchasing habits is one thing. Rethinking the implications of what you purchase and every step it takes to get to your door is another. It takes time to get to a spot where you feel confident in every purchase you make. I'm not quite there yet. As I shift my mindset and train my brain to reconsider and reevaluate purchases, I gain a deeper respect and understanding of the process as a whole.
Integrating a Shift in Our Consumer Mindset
With the current state of the world, it is hard to think of only yourself. All of our actions impact other beings and the environment. That air freshener we buy for our car or the dress we only plan to wear once, they started their life far before you even considered going to the store or opening your internet browser. We often only think of product lifespans after they get to us, but perhaps we should start thinking of the life they have before they reach our door.
Although we are still wading through the COVID-19 Pandemic, there seems to be a reawakening of activism and attention surrounding the many ills that plague our society. A shift in our collective consciousness and consumer mindset has begun, but now we have to take these lessons and apply them to action.
While recycling has long been touted as a go-to environmentally friendly act, there is much to be done to improve the process. We can no longer ignore the failings of our consumer-based system, and we can no longer rely on the export of our waste. We have to come up with solutions here and now.
As I see it, recycling is an entitled consumer action that provides us with a false sense of accomplishment and environmental sustainability. It helps us justify our actions instead of making us change them. We are putting far too much faith in a system that can no longer support its current model of operation.
These issues are big, they are scary, and they are systemic. They seem removed from us, but they are not. Policies and production models must change, but I fear that the only way to make those changes happen is for the people to come together and demand they do.
By reducing your consumption and only buying what you need, you are becoming part of the solution. You are part of the solution by refusing to consume products that foster exploitation, pollution, and environmental destruction. By rethinking your daily habits and purchases, you are part of the solution.
Looking for some inspiration to help shift your mindset? Check out these five books to influence sustainable thinking and action.