We’ve all heard countless statistics about the amount of waste that each American produces (the Clean Air Council for one says it’s an average of 4.39 pounds per person per day, up to 56 tons per person per year), and that only a fraction of what can get recycled does, and that you save umpteen times the energy by recycling as opposed to creating an entirely new paper/plastic/metal/glass fill-in-the-blank. All important information, but what so many sources don’t suggest is just PRODUCING LESS WASTE IN THE FIRST PLACE.
I’m absolutely sick of hearing about recycling as someone’s claim to being green and saving the planet. Because recycling skips all of the preceding steps (of which there are four, rather than two, at least according to Burning Man philosophy) that range from change in perspective to change in overall habits, rather than accepting that an ungodly amount of waste is inevitably created and has to be dealt with somehow. By no means am I a zero-waste individual (but am hoping to make my wedding a zero-waste event), but I like to think that I engage in these other R’s enough to significantly reduce my waste.
Respect. We are told from elementary school that respecting others is important, but respecting the planet is not often included. For me this respect is natural result of the sheer awe I have for the complexity and beauty of nature, of ecosystems, of cycles with so many interconnected layers that I can only begin to fathom. By cultivating wonder, respect emerges. Respect is infrequently glamorous, and I would venture to say that the processes that take place in a compost pile are one of the most respect-garnering elements of the natural world for me. But compost is unwanted food, it is dirt, it is worms and mush and poop. It is not sexy, but it is AMAZING.
Rethink. Waste is not inevitable. I repeat: WASTE IS NOT INEVITABLE. We in Western culture have become so accustomed to landfills, incinerators, and even toxin producing recycling plants that our ‘solutions’ are changing the type of filter that a particular facility uses to alleviate some of the air pollution issues, rather than not building the plant in the first place.
Yesterday I met with a fellow community organizer from the next neighborhood West of where I work, and at the end of our meandering conversation we discussed the City’s potential plans to expand the capacity of an already problematic incinerator located in downtown Minneapolis. In addition to voicing our frustrations with NIMBYism (the increased capacity would likely be needed to incinerate garbage from the suburbs), we wondered at the shortsightedness of City Council for limiting their conversation to how to deal with __ amount of waste, rather than how to not produce it in the first place and thus eliminate the need for increased incinerator capacity altogether. Rethinking is a paradigm shift. It is radically examining and reimagining the systems we have created for ourselves rather than apply bandaids to hold those failing systems together.
Reduce. This is also somewhat of a paradigm shift, but habit based rather than mindset based. Reducing my personal waste has meant committing to purchasing largely from the bulk aisles at the co-op, using containers I bring to refill rather than the provided plastic bags. It means bringing a cloth bag everywhere I go (or just tossing my purchase in my omni-present shoulder bag). Most importantly and at its most basic, reducing means consuming less in general. If you don’t buy something in the first place you don’t have to worry about where the waste from the product might end up!
Reuse. Creativity emerges through reusing, and while the reuse step in the cycle assumes that waste already exists that needs to be reused, it is still an exciting place to imagine possibilities for items that many believe to be garbage. I’ve been collecting beer bottle caps for quite some time to make earrings (the Carpe Diem pair I sport frequently gets compliments every single time I wear them). Cardboard boxes become shelves, old t-shirts become a quilt. I keep a small box of random odds and ends that I find interesting and might want to use for an art project one day (such as the piece below, made of assorted plastic bottle caps I saved over a year). A hanging planter crafted from my worn out front gears from my Bridgestone along with old brake cables is in the works. Reusing is fun, creative, and I would argue mind stretching enough to be included in the group of things that one should do to retain memory while aging.
Let 2011 be the year where our culture takes radical steps to be sure landfills are lessened, incinerators eliminated, and recycling plants made obsolete. Waste is not inevitable.