Reduce. Reuse. Recycle. Really? Let’s start with where the whole recycling thing came from. Recycling began in the 1960s as an effort to be less wasteful and protect the environment. Plenty of us know how to rinse our aluminum cans and separate them from paper. However, after that, it gets incredibly complicated. Sometimes, the consumer is asked to separate paper waste from “everything else.” Other times, all recycling is done in a single stream, where paper, glass, aluminum and plastic are all tossed into the same receptacle and sorted off-site.

Paper is one of the easiest things to recycle. After all, where do you think the materials that go into the post-consumer recycled content actually come from? Nothing pains me more than hearing, “I hate to waste paper so I’m printing this on both sides,” or even better that they are having an increased environmental impact because they say, “I rarely use paper, I use electronics.” But if you do the math, the effort to recycle the paper is a lot more efficient, and the waste is a lot less than the materials it took to make that one electronic device. The quantity of paper, therefore, is irrelevant.

Cans and glass bottles are also pretty easy and cheap to recycle. What about the rest of the mixed recycling? We have been taught since birth to “save the environment” and that the oceans are chock full of plastic — filled with straws from Starbucks. 

Perhaps I’m not virtuous enough to try to recycle everything, but I’d rather have what I do toss into the recycling bin actually get recycled than contaminate other items. See, if the item to be recycled isn’t cleaned properly, then it can’t be recycled. Even if the container says that a particular item can be recycled, not every municipality accepts every type of material. So, to recycle that Aveda shampoo bottle, I’d have to take it back to the store — whether driving or taking public transit — at a cost of money, time and emissions of some sort.

But, if someone sees me discarding that, then suddenly my social stock plummets and I’m a bad person. 

But wait, you say, “I don’t want this to be littering the oceans. Ok, how about littering the landfills instead? Have we run out of landfills? Where does all that recycling go?” I’m glad you asked. As it turns out, up until the trade wars, most of it was going to China, since they were experiencing rapid economic growth and needed raw materials. Those times have passed, and now China doesn’t need our recycling, which leaves recycling centers in the United States with a problem. The recycling centers don’t know how to actually repurpose any of that stuff, or they don’t have the technology to recycle, or it is cost prohibitive. For them, it’s easier to throw away the items than to recycle them. It’s also cheaper for them; they did the cost-benefit analysis. 

I guess it’s up to us to reuse materials. It’s better to reconstitute recyclable materials than to manufacture something new. However, in today’s low costs for cheap new goods, who will tell that to the child who has to play with a hand-me-down toy rather than a shiny, new mint-in-package action figure?

Since everything is so inexpensive to make and so much more expensive to sort and recycle, it’s actually economical to buy something new. But buying something disposable would not give me the same warm fuzzy feeling that recycling does.

I’m certain that many individuals don’t even know the exact rules of recycling in their place of work or in their home. They blithely go about being full of goodness as they throw their yogurt cup into the recycling bin or compost an apple core. It didn’t matter — it all went to China, despite the marketing to tell you your trash is going to a landfill. In my opinion, landfills don’t get enough love. Now that China isn’t taking the world’s trash, the world needs to decide that incineration is acceptable and that plastic bottles are far less worrisome than a round trip air ticket to Des Moines, Iowa. 

A lot of people try to blame the poor single-use plastic bag because they likely saw the movie American Beauty where the lonely artistic plastic bag is blown around by the wind.

So if we can’t recycle and we can’t reuse, can we reduce? This is where I think we can make the most difference. Do we really need that over-packaged delivery from DoorDash? Looking at the options of bins sometimes makes my head explode from confusion. Suddenly, even the mundane task of throwing away my lunch takes on a societal importance, especially if someone is observing this interaction. I can reduce by using a lunch tin for my food, not buying single serve snacks and putting them in my own container. I can ask myself, “Do I really need that plastic bottle of water? Or can I bring my own bisphenol-A-free container?”

Throwing away anything is bad, but oftentimes the emphasis seems to be placed on the wrong point. My personal pet peeve in this one is the poor plastic straw, since I know some people who actually need one to sip through, and the paper straws just do not work as well. According to the National Geographic, eight million tons of plastic flow into the ocean every year, and straws comprise just 0.025 percent of the plastic debris in the oceans. Most of the plastic waste comes from fishing nets. Still, I am glad that people are finally taking notice of the single-use items they consume. I hope this leads to longer term behavioral change, for the planet’s sake.