Since we were kids, we’ve been told to reduce, reuse, and recycle...but what does that really mean?
The phrase “reduce, reuse, recycle” was created in the mid-1970s (around the time of the Vietnam War) when we started to become more acutely aware of our (generally negative) impact on the environment.
Air pollution was terrible. The water quality was worse. While waste management had improved over past decades, an attitude of “out of sight, out of mind” prevailed.
Advocates of better recycling and waste management have forced many reforms and better infrastructure. In fact, that’s how the Environmental Protection Agency got started.
Yet we can’t help but feel that the mantra we’ve memorized rings hollow no matter how many times we chant it; studies show that Americans only recycle 23 percent of the materials that can be recycled.
Most people don’t even remember that the order of the 3 R’s is intentional. There’s a reason we never say “Recycle, Reduce, Reuse” and it’s not just because it sounds funny.
Reducing your consumption of plastic should be the first priority
If there’s less trash being produced, less of it can wind up in the ocean. Reducing the amount of trash that goes into landfills inherently decreases the amount of trash that has to be decomposed or incinerated. And that’s the most important action any of us can take.
Since much of the waste that goes into landfills is plastic, decomposition can take hundreds, even thousands of years. Burning trash containing plastic releases toxic fumes into the air.
Eliminating our use of single-use plastics (plastic items like straws and cups that are used once and thrown away) is one of the best and easiest ways to reduce our consumption.
You can choose to replace plastic bottles with a reusable bottle. You can buy in bulk and choose to make meals at home more often. You can choose restaurants that don’t offer straws or that have made the switch from plastic straws to biodegradable paper options. You can choose products made by manufacturers that use biodegradable materials instead of plastic, which creates a demand for more of those kinds of products to be created.
But that’s why this R is the most important and also the most difficult to implement: it requires a behavioral and economic shift in the attitudes and mindsets of individuals, corporations, and governments.
We must first change how we think about the problem before we take the actions that will have the largest impact. But it is possible to do if we continue to educate and raise awareness at every level.
Reusing, repurposing, and upcycling is your second-best option
In a plastic-filled world, eliminating the plastics that we use every day is virtually impossible. Cell phones, clothing, and even cars are made with plastics, so complete withdrawal is not an option.
So when we can’t reduce our consumption of plastic, we should find ways to reuse it. Instead of throwing something away that you don’t want anymore, try donating it or giving it to a friend who might want it. One person’s trash can certainly be another person’s treasure!
Even better, reusing items that no longer serve their original purpose can be great for DIY crafts, gifts, or decorations.
Giving your old, pink bedside lamp to your friend’s younger sister, for example, will make you feel much better knowing it is going to a new home instead of being thrown in the trash. You can even use old cardboard egg cartons to grow your herb garden.
Pinterest is full of ideas on how you can reuse things that have outlived their purpose. So get creative, be thoughtful, and be inspired by repurposing old items and turning them into something new again!
Recycle only as a last resort
If reducing and reusing are not options, then recycling is the third-best choice.
While recycling is undoubtedly better than throwing away, the misconception about recycling is that it never goes into the landfill. The truth is that plastics can only be recycled so many times before they are chemically unable to be reheated and reshaped into something else.
Unfortunately, this means that all recyclable plastics will eventually end up in the landfill at the end of its recycling life.
It is essential, however, to understand that not everything can be recycled. For example, styrofoam, plastic food wrapping, and soggy pizza boxes are not accepted into recycling facilities.
Make sure you understand what types of things can and cannot be recycled. Check the labels and start paying attention to the things you consume that can’t be recycled or that aren’t easily recycled. Then find ways to replace them with more sustainable options. Reducing and reusing our waste is inherently the best option for a cleaner environment and a cleaner ocean.
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Our latest shoreline cleanup at Matheson Hammock proved just how much trash can become trapped in mangroves habitats. With hundreds of participants at the cleanup, it is no wonder we collected over 5,000 pounds of trash and recyclables!