I love me some recycling. It’s an incredible thing that I can dispose of my stuff – cans that formerly held black beans, my empty bottles of Summit Extra Pale Ale, and the ridiculous amount of junk mail I get from credit card companies and, yes, environmental stewardship non-profits – and that stuff gets taken away and magically transformed into something new. Don’t ask me how.
A few months ago our great city of Minneapolis joined the ranks of those enlightened places with the wonderful, convenient, ingenious public service that is Single-Sort-Recycling. My guilt-free disposal system just. got. better. Truthfully it added happiness to those days I lugged bags of waste from our kitchen to the blue recycling bin behind our garage and didn’t have to sort a damn thing. But amidst the rejoicing of my city’s progress, I was struck by this reality:
Throughout my childhood my generation was trained with a delightful mantra – Reduce – Reuse – Recycle; somehow, through all of the signs in school hallways, reminders from teachers, and Jack Johnson songs, I made it to adulthood thinking and living as if recycling was the only one of those three that mattered. I don’t think I ever processed what reducing and reusing should look like. I simply tried to remember to look for that blue bin with the three arrows in a triangle shape, and so do my civic duty.
I wonder now if my tendency (and I expect I am not alone) to emphasize recycling at the expense of reducing and reusing stems from that human – we in the U.S. might be particularly adept at this – inclination to do good when it costs us nothing.
Recycling is a good thing, and it allows me to do good while maintaining my current lifestyle. But reducing? This means I must live differently – buy less, consume less, eat differently, take the bus/bike more, etc. Who has time for all that?
My wife and I left the country a few weeks ago for a bit of a pilgrimage. Our preparations included a dramatic purge of our stuff. It required several trips to thrift stores and half-priced books. We’ve been married a little over a year, and the amount of stuff we had already accumulated was ridiculous.
It felt good to purge. It felt even better to do so without throwing away all those t-shirts. But coming across an old pair of ripped up jeans interrupted my purging. Goodwill doesn’t want my ripped up jeans, and it feels a little wrong to give my crappy stuff to a store that primarily exists for those with less resources. But I feel guilty throwing clothes away.
I suppose you’d classify thrift stores as reusing – but I wasn’t the one reusing all those possessions I’d acquired. And regularly taking things to thrift stores actually allows me to increase my consumption to replace the things I’ve given away. In fact, after our grand purge I got some new, hip traveling clothes to take on our journey – just a few so that we could, you know, live simply.
Here’s the deal: I love recycling. I love re-using. I wasn’t kidding when I said single-sort-recycling made me happy. And if more of us bought our clothes from thrift stores, we might use a few less resources.
But in light of 7 billion people consuming the world’s resources, and in light of our society as one comprised of mostly over-consumers – using more than our share – recycling fails to get at the heart of our consumption problems, and in fact simply allows us to consume more with less guilt. If we want to bring some equilibrium back to the earth we must recognize that it comes with a cost. We will have to sacrifice. We can not continue to live the way we are living, but must radically alter our choices and actions.
We can start by putting our mantra back together – Reduce – Reuse – Recycle. Our next step is to take it seriously.