The phrase "reduce, reuse, recycle" has become well-known around the globe. Most children are introduced to this phrase at an early age, and even the most hardened anti-environmentalist probably thinks about this phrase occasionally before buying something. Unfortunately for those of us concerned about the environment, many people think that by recycling they are helping the environment. Recycling is a key part of sustainability, but it is a last resort. Living the first two R’s can have a far more signficant impact on the environment.
If you are a tea drinker, no doubt you have dipped your tea bag in hot water, allowed it to soak and then thrown it away. When you had a second cup, you got a new tea bag and repeated the process. Maybe you took a recycled paper cup to put it in, but you were walking to work and threw it in the garbage once it was empty. Most tea bags – particularly high-quality teas, not "tea leavings" like supermarket brand teas – can brew 2-3 cups of tea before the flavor begins to fade. A paper cup reused 3 times uses fewer natural resources than a ceramic mug (think of the energy necessary to fire the ceramic mug and the water to wash it).
Reusing items like a jar are second nature to most people. Few of us would buy a glass jar of jam and then throw it away immediately after eating all of the jam that was there, as long as we didn’t already have 50 jars lying around. Most environmentally conscious people would find at least one more use for the jar – storing some soup later on, keeping pennies in it or even using it for a drinking glass. However, reusing a tea bag or a paper cup doesn’t come as easily. Most of us are conditioned to think of a tea bag as a single-use item. Taking the memo you just got on your desk at work and using the unused side for notes at our next meeting saves a few pages out of that recycled paper notebook. Reusing items is a powerful tool in the fight to reduce the mountains of trash piling up around the world. Reusing plastic items can save the energy necessary to create new plastic items; think about plastic forks. Old t-shirts can have one last life as cleaning rags, instead of using paper towels. Thinking of creative ways to reuse items can reduce the number of new items being brought into your life, which reduces clutter, saves money and ultimately protects the environment.
However, reusing an item still has a cost to the environment. Even if you reuse a t-shirt 500 times as a rag before discarding it, some natural resources have been expended and will never be recovered in its making. Maybe it was a t-shirt you bought on your last trip to Florida that looked so funny at the time but once you got back to chilly New York didn’t seem so clever. Or you already have 30 t-shirts but you really need one that says "Earth Day 2007."
By not buying something that you do not need you have taken the most powerful action in support of the Earth that you can take. If you own a set of plates, you do not need a second set. If you have a TV remote that works, you do not need a universal remote. If you have a cell phone, you do not need an iPhone. Every time you make a choice not to obtain ‘stuff’ that you do not need, you make a choice to support the Earth and not work against it.
By reducing your purchases of ‘stuff’ you will also encourage companies to rethink their attitudes in the marketplace. The fashion industry, for example, thrives on convincing people that they need new clothes every year to stay in touch with the latest fashions. Imagine that you could buy a pair of jeans that were so durable they would last for 15 years, or a tie that would look good for the rest of your life. That may sound ridiculous but before the fashion industry convinced us to ditch our wardrobe each season clothes were made to last for decades, because that was what consumers expected. Reducing our consumption would encourage companies to make longer-lasting goods, because consumers would search for the best quality to reduce future consumption.
Recycling is a critical action in support of the environment, and everyone should be active in recycling. Think the next time you recycle whether you could have reused that item before throwing it in the recycle bin, or better yet, ask yourself if you are just going to go out and buy another one to replace it. Reusing and ultimately reducing our consumption of goods will have a long lasting effect even greater than recycling!