Perhaps one of the most familiar mottos of the environmental movement is the trusty line of ‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.’ The alliterative trio makes the difficult task of personally challenging climate change seem manageable. Despite being presented to us as a set of three, only one action of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle fame is regularly incorporated into the lives of Americans. Conflating recycling alone with sustainability has lead us to a level of moral hazard that prevents us from dealing with the difficult questions of how to actually curb consumption.
Recycling gives us a pass; it tells us that we have done something good with our trash, which then dissolves all possible negative impacts of a certain item’s use because it’s better than a landfill, right? In reality, the way that we collectively enact Reduce, Reuse, Recycle is all wrong. The familiar framework is not a loose list or a suggested set of potential actions conscientious citizens can pick and choose from; it is an elegant hierarchy detailing a specific decision-making process which ends with recycling as a last-resort alternative to throwing an object away. Reduce and reuse should not be the forgotten activities of the famous trio; they should instead stand at the forefront of how we think about consumption, forcing us to ask the hard questions and reconsider how we use stuff altogether.
In the abstract, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle comes to us in the form of a clear set of directions. If you have some object whose disposal will be bad for the environment, look for a way to reduce the necessity of that item. For example, switching to a sturdy reusable water bottle would reduce the number of single-use bottles a person might go through. If reduction is not an option, then consider how you might reuse the object as the next best alternative. Simply repurposing an object – say a pasta sauce jar to a water glass – creates something you can use regularly without expending the energy that would be required to process those materials into something that can be sold again.
Finally, if you must buy an object and it cannot be repurposed in your house, our motto instructs us to recycle the object. An empty aerosol can will not do you any good, but the energy required to recycle it will at least be better than sending it to a landfill. In these cases, recycling should be embraced; it is the appropriate next step for objects which could not be handled by a preferable alternative, like not buying future-trash in the first place. Given that each step of the phrase is objectively worse for the planet than the option before it, we can conclude that actions should be performed in the order they are given: reduce, reuse recycle. It’s just that simple.
Despite the clear hierarchy of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, few engage with sustainability beyond recycling when convenient. Just as the motto is purposefully in the order of effectiveness, it is also in an order that makes the very action that would do the most good, reducing consumption, the most difficult, while recycling is the easiest. Fantastic, you put a piece of plastic in the can right next to the trash can. Wow! Recycling is the environmental embodiment of slacktivism; it requires little engagement, has a limited impact compared to more difficult options and yet it somehow inspires those who practice only recycling to assume they have done their duty to the Earth and owe it no further consideration.
It is simply not enough to assume that recycling is an adequate solution to the negative consequences of our unbridled consumption. A given material can only be recycled so many times before it will degrade past being useful. At some point, everything you have ever thrown in a recycling bin will wind up as trash. Cheap access to raw goods has revolutionized our lives and dramatically improved standards of living across the United States. The proliferation of cheap manufacturing that has given us vast amounts of “stuff” has made us rich, but even wealth has its costs. It’s time to take the difficult parts of sustainable living seriously while we can still ease into the forgotten pieces of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.