Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Whatever Happened to R1 and R2?

For anyone who grew up in the 80's and 90's, this graphic was the ultimate symbol of environmental responsibility. Any young student could explain that it stood for Reduce-Reuse-Recycle; the three touchstones of our collective effort to control the rampant spread of waste, both the waste of limited resources and the garbage filling landfills and oceans. Reduce: use fewer resources. Reuse: use items over again instead of buying new. Recycle: process existing items to make them useful again.

So, how did the nifty green triangle come to stand for recycling alone? How did 'Recycle!' end up becoming the dominant battle-cry of the main-stream greenies? Whatever happened to the (even better) policies of reducing and reusing? Recycling is great, don't get me wrong-- it's certainly better than just throwing things away-- but it works better in concert with the other practices. Of the three, recycling uses the most resources to accomplish the same end. To melt down aluminum or glass in order to make fresh cans and bottles is better thanAnd only certain things can be recycled, while essentially anything can be reduced or reused. Reducing and reusing are primarily individual pursuits; recycling requires the involvement of an entire community to be efficient. One can't recycle in a vaccuum.

Call me cynical, but I think there's a profit motive at play somewhere in here. There is no money to be made from reducing. If I decide to not buy any new clothes this spring (to just re-wear last year's springy clothes- a shocking, revolutionary idea!), it profits exactly nobody... well, except me, of course, by the money I would be saving. Likewise, if I reuse something, whether by continuing to use it as intended, or by re-purposing it to do something else, nobody makes any money from my decision. But recycling is part of a huge system, and there must be profits involved in there somewhere, right? Products made from recycled goods are certainly more expensive than otherwise; whether that's just the increased cost being passed to the consumer, or incorporates a profit is hard to determine. And of course, companies that use "green practices" get a public-relations boost that is hard to quantify in dollars. Recycling can fit into the corporate model of growth, growth, growth because it doesn't endorse consuming less, but how could reducing or reusing? They are squarely at odds with increased consumption by representing shrinking (or at least level) use.

Housing magazines today never fail to incude a "building green" section or article. Building green is huge now! It's exiting and innovative. But they rarely mention that it is more "green" to reuse or repurpose an existing building instead of breaking new ground; even remodels tend to look like complete re-builds. Nor do they confess that the smaller the footprint, the "greener" the building, just by virtue of using fewer materials in the construction and less energy later on in heating and cooling. Sure, it's great to use Forest Certified wood from a responsibly harvested forest, but if it's going into a 3,500 sqft house meant for two or three residents, isn't it kind of missing the point?

The same goes for everything else. Using post-consumer-recycled paper in your office is lovely, but putting in place policies to reduce the number of sheets used a day would be more effective. Organic cotton sheets and T-shirts? Very "green"; organic growing practices reduce the pesticide, herbicide, and nitrogen loads on the planet. But just reusing or rewearing what's already lurking in the linen closet or dresser drawer is even better. Imagine if everyone bought one fewer set of sheets, or two fewer t-shirts this year. Maybe, eventually, less cotton would be planted at all; plus we'd all save fifty bucks.
Another interesting trend is that as recycling of some products has increased, the number of disposable products on the market has exploded. I don't know if there's a connection there or not, but dozens of things that would be considered permanent and reusable twenty years ago are now one-use items. Mops and dustrags are now disposable Swiffers. The old toilet brush is now a one-use, chemically laden Clorox Toilet Wands. Disposable wipes, which used to just clean poo off baby bottoms, now wipe down kitchen counters and shower walls. Not to mention that the old cloth-vs-disposable diaper debate has died to a whisper, with disposables now being so fully acceptable that it's cloth diapers that raise eyebrows, even though the only study suggesting any environmental equality between the two was sponsored by the disposable corporations. 'Disposable' has become a stand-in for 'hygenic'. Was the old way really so filthy? When my dad used a dishcloth to wipe down the kitchen counter at night, was he subjecting us kids to horrific, animated germies? Perhaps there's no correlation between recycling and disposable products, but I feel that perhaps, as we feel vindicated by carefully sorting cans, bottles, and newspaper out of the garbage, we make room (in the can and in our rationale) for more trash.

As for me, I want to put all three R's back into the sign. Embrace recycling, but stop neglecting poor old Reuse and Reduce.

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