Graduating from Recycling to Reducing and Reusing

The front page of the New York Times yesterday details the sorry state of the recycling industry—thanks to the global recession, the market for paper, cardboard, tin, and aluminum has dried up, and recycling contractors are desperate to unload their mounting stock. Some of it will end up in a landfill. Until manufacturers start buying again, this will continue.

We’ve suspected for years that recycling wouldn’t be the great panacea that was promised, but rather, a baby step toward changing our habits. In fact, the plan worked well. When activists first proposed home recycling programs, few believed that anyone would take the time to separate out the cans, cereal boxes, and milk bottles without economic incentives, but now recycling is natural to most of us.

Now we’re ready to graduate beyond first-generation environmentalism and I propose that for this round, we focus on reducing waste at home. That means buying fewer things, buying for quality, not price, and repurposing. One wealthy businessman I know said, “I save money by only buying retail and avoiding shopping for bargains. It’s the stuff I bought based on the low price that I never use.” Good advice for someone who just filled a garbage bag up with clothes bought at TJ Maxx.

Reducing means buying vintage or used whenever possible. That makes home design more challenging, but more rewarding. When you buy a vintage upholstered chair. You can find some great fabric, and hire an upholsterer to transform the piece. You’ll save two chairs from the landfill, save money, and keep a craftsman employed.

Reducing means getting crafty. I found a great pattern for “Sock Friends” on the Boden website—with buttons, fabric scraps, and old socks, I’ve made toys for my daughter and her friends. Turns out my adult friends also covet custom-made “friends”…so my holiday shopping list is done, and all I had to buy were some sewing needles.

Watch for home supplies that come in bottles when solids are available. Examples: soap bars vs. liquid soaps in pump containers, and boxed powdered laundry detergent vs. liquid detergents.

And this holiday season, consider your décor assumptions. Locally-made wreaths fashioned with natural materials will help support the craftspeople in our communities. Rewash plastic utensils and use them again, and again, and again. Avoid the paper plates and cups—bring your own to the office party in a fabric bag. And as a special gift to the earth, collect all the mail-order catalogs you get this holiday season, call their respective 800 numbers to get your name removed from their list, then use their pages to make your own wrapping paper. Whacky? Given the state of the world, you decide.