the six r's & why recycling isn't the answer
We live in a throwaway culture here in Europe and the US under the illusion that waste is OK as long as we recycle. And if we're honest, this suits us just fine because it requires very little extra effort. Instead of putting our rubbish in the black bin, we put it in the green, brown, pink or [insert colour according to your local council here] bins and think no more about it - we can feel virtuous, we've done our part, now our empty cans will magically be turned into a shiny new aeroplane - go us!
But recycling is an expensive business, both economically and environmentally, requiring vast amounts of energy and water, both of which are in short supply right now. Yes recycling is much better than sending our waste to a landfill where it will take hundreds or even thousands of years to decompose (whilst often emitting toxic fumes), but recycling should also be considered a last resort.
If we really want to be environmentally friendly, instead of just choosing the right bins, we should practice The Six R's:
The first and by far the most important step is to REFUSE. Unnecessary packaging is a blight of the 21st Century and accounts for huge amounts of waste. Luckily we can reduce that waste by simply saying No. Getting conscious of what we do is the first step - do we need our fruit shrink wrapped and then packed in a plastic box? Do we really need a bag or can we do without? Most bigger shops in the UK charge for bags now (it's actually the law in Wales and is set to be in England too from 2015) and will ask if we really need one - so lets get into the habit of saying no, unless we really need one. Check out how many bags end up in the rubbish less than half an hour after you get home - it's crazy. And the paper bags we get in sandwich shops might seem more eco friendly, but they came from somewhere. So can you carry your sandwich back to the office without a bag, which was once a beautiful tree? Or if you do accept a paper bag, take it with with you next time and use it again. This has actually become a VTV office policy!
Reusable shopping bags are offered for sale at every supermarket now and most big stores - they get to advertise their business and we get to say no to excess waste (just make sure you take it with you when you do your weekly shop!).
If you really can't refuse, can you REDUCE? Reducing the amount we use is the second best thing we can do to lessen waste. Get as much as you can in one bag, don't double bag and consider using other methods to carry things, like reusable bags, boxes and crates. Where you can, shop in places that don't wrap everything in plastic. Choose products with simple packaging, or better yet, no packaging, it doesn't take long for the producers to catch on, the packaging costs them money which is passed on to us in the price and if we pay attention we notice that much of the fanciest packaging is designed to make a product look more attractive than its actual contents! Once we become conscious of this it's shocking just how much unnecessary waste there is from a weekly shop.
If you can't refuse or reduce, then you can most certainly RE-USE. Bags, both paper and plastic, can be saved and used again. Bags for life are widely available, plastic knives and forks can be washed so we can refuse and reuse them next time (what a wonderful circle we're creating here!). Jars with lids can be used as storage and are better than plastic tubs - the list goes on and the possibilities are only limited by our imagination.
For more permanent items consider a REPAIR before throwing it away. It's easy to put a t-shirt in the bin when you only paid a few quid for it, but when you consider the human labour, water, energy and transportation it took to get it to you, its impact becomes a lot more costly. So think about whether you can sew up a loose seam, or darn a sock before you throw it away and get a new one. It's not fashionable these days to repair and many things are produced in a way that makes them impossible to repair - that's the awful reality about a throwaway society, but where we can we should.
If something can't be repaired then REPURPOSE might be the most fun of all the R's. Turning old stuff into new stuff doesn't have to mean using plastic bottles as planters in the garden and turning old t-shirts into dusters (although these are really cool things to do) it can also mean finding creative ways to do arts and crafts with the kids, making jewellery out of colourful objects, sanding down old furniture and giving it a new look. The list is endless. And a quick search on the internet will give you lots of ideas.
And if you can't repurpose something for yourself, giving it to someone who can is just as good - try using sites like Freecycle to find a new home for all your unwanted goods.
6. Recycle (if you must)
And finally, as a last resort when all the other Five R's have been exhausted, then yes RECYCLE by all means, because our planet isn't going to get any bigger and we're running out of space to bury (also read: burn into toxic, carcinogenic fumes) our rubbish. A lot more of our rubbish can be recycled these days and if you have a garden and aren't making your own compost from food waste you're really missing a trick!
Check with your local council what services they provide, many do curb side collections alongside your normal bins and there will be a facility you can go to with larger items - there's really no excuse when you consider the impact of not recycling.
When we throw something away - there is NO AWAY. Think about it...
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