Many of us were taught to reduce, reuse and recycle to eliminate waste and conserve natural resources and energy. The three Rs is a cute slogan we teach kids to recycle aluminum cans, turn off water when brushing their teeth and find creative ways to repurpose materials.
However, as I’ve gotten older, I realized that I have relied on recycling more than making an effort to reduce waste. I’ve done easy things like signing up to receive email instead of paper notices, donating old clothes and goods, and ensuring I keep a ChicoBag in my purse so I’ll always have a reusable bag when I go shopping. But one day I was cleaning out the refrigerator and saw green beans, bell peppers and broccoli rotting away in the crisper. I forgot they were down there.
Uggghhhh. Soooo much food going to waste. This food could have helped feed families, and now it’s going to a landfill.
I had to ask myself, “How much trash am I throwing away, and exactly what is 'away?' Where is my trash going, and who lives there?”
There’s a reason why the order is reduce, reuse and recycle. We’re supposed to:
However, that’s not the case here in the United States. The U.S. is one of the leading trash-producing countries in the world. As populations increase and become more urbanized and industrialized, the more waste a country generates.
Our waste has gotten so bad in the U.S., the USDA and EPA has set a food loss and waste reduction goal of 50 percent by 2030.
The average American produces around 4.6 pounds of municipal solid waste (MSW) every day, helping the country generate more than 250 million pounds of waste every year. Around half of the waste in the U.S. is sent to a landfill, while the rest is recycled, composted or incinerated.
Food makes up more than 20 percent of waste in this country, making it the most common material that ends up in a landfill or incinerator. Organic materials such as food waste, paper and paperboard, and yard clippings are the biggest components of MSW.
Landfills have become a major producer of methane emissions due to buried organic material that’s rotting. Pipes are used to vent and burn methane to release the greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, which is 28 to 36 more times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 100-year period. According to the EPA, MSW landfills are the third-largest source of human-related methane emissions in the U.S.
Incinerators only makes smaller landfills. The process may create a small amount of energy, but it also creates toxic air emissions from the combustion process. It’s akin to burning coal, but with more carbon dioxide, dioxin, mercury, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide. Toxic ash is ultimately dumped in another landfill.
And as is often the case with environmental racism, landfills and incinerators – whether it’s household, industrial or hazardous waste – are often found in low-income communities and communities of color, contributing to the disproportionately high rates of pollution.
The EPA reports that 35 percent of MSW is recycled or composted, diverting materials from landfills and incinerators, conserving natural resources and reducing the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. However, the value of recycling depends on the material.
Glass, for example, is made from sand, a readily available material, compared to trees which is a scarcer resource. Recyclables are valuable because of their rarity. More than one-third of glass sent to recycling facilities is crushed and sent to landfills to cover trapped gasses or bury the smell.
In Psychology Today, Dr. Kenneth Worthy writes about the rebound effect, the idea that people will buy more or a product because it is more efficient or recyclable, therefore cancelling out the efficiency of the product.
When we see the recycling symbol on water bottles, we know that it’s recyclable so we will just buy more bottles instead of just using a single bottle we can refill. Rather than focus on making fundamental changes to reduce our environmental impact, we’re content with the presence of that small triangle that makes us feel like we’re not contributing to any environmental damage. It’s a way to preemptively alleviate any guilt.
When we talk about reduce, reuse and recycle, let’s actually make an effort to eliminate waste and conserve natural resources and energy. Let’s add two more Rs:
Refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle and rot.
Everything we buy has an environmental consequence. Our cities, businesses, schools, churches and families need to focus on ways to reduce waste before it reaches the bin. Reducing environmental damages means transitioning to an economy with fewer materials.
I know I can do better, and my next step is to start composting. What will yours be?
Here are 100 ways to reduce waste in your home.
Environmental advocate. Communications professional. Sports fan. I love television and press conferences.