There’s something satisfying about filling up the recycling bin with soup cans, milk cartons, wads of aluminum foil and other materials that would otherwise take up space in our landfills. I feel particularly virtuous on the days when our recycling bin is fuller than our garbage bin.
But recently I came to realize that although recycling is better for the planet than simply throwing everything in the trash, it is by no means a perfect solution. After all, it is more costly and more effort-intensive for a municipality to handle recyclables (a fact I learned when my own city’s recycling program was cut back for several months during citywide budget shortfalls). What’s more, it requires energy to turn the recyclable waste back into the raw materials needed for use in manufacturing.
I think it’s very easy to get caught up in a mindset of believing that as long as you’re throwing that plastic, cardboard and glass into the recycling bin (no matter how much you fill it), that you’re doing enough for the environment. But wouldn’t it be better to simply try to cut back on any sort of waste, recyclable or not? This is my mission of late, and if you want to join my plan, here are some tips:
Buy in Bulk
This is one of my favorite things to do when it comes to rice and grains, granola, oatmeal, dried fruit, flour, sugar, nuts and more. Not only is it usually cheaper than buying the same products in packages, but you can also get exactly how much you need, and you can even reuse the plastic bag and twist tie. Look for a bulk food aisle in your natural foods store. If you don’t like the idea of storing your purchases in floppy, fragile plastic bags, invest in a few reusable plastic or glass containers to keep in your pantry, and just replenish them as usual. As for me, I have kept the same Quaker Oats cardboard canister for years, and I simply keep refilling it with bulk oats.
Avoid Single-Serving Sizes
At first I loved the recent trend of individually packaged foods, everything from snacks to yogurt to pickles. As the mother of a toddler, it makes packing for lunch and snacks a no-brainer, and of course, it’s also easier to for me practice good portion control. But each of those plastic wrappers or little plastic tubs means more waste for the landfill or the recycling bin. Tempting as these convenient packets are, I’m buying larger sizes instead and filling reusable plastic containers for lunches and to-go snacks. Just like buying in bulk, this also saves money; you pay more for those tiny packages, and you end up with less.
If you’ve got kids, finding things to do with plastic tubs, toilet paper tubes, cardboard boxes, etc., is a no-brainer. I like the list from Make-Stuff that gives ideas for how to turn trash into useful items around the house, but part of the fun is using your imagination. Recently my daughter and I made shakers by gluing paper over either end of a toilet paper roll filled with a handful of dry rice. They weren’t pretty, but they sure were good at keeping a percussive beat to an impromptu singalong/parade.
Drink Tap Water and Don’t Use Disposable Cups
You’ve heard it again and again, but let me be the latest person to remind you: Stop buying bottles of water. Instead, drink tap water, and if yours doesn’t taste good, then invest in a filter to improve the flavor. City water is regulated more stringently than the water that goes into bottled water, and besides, you don’t have to worry about Bisphenol A and other nasty chemicals leaching into your water. I got myself a portable bottle and use it to carry water in the car, to yoga, or even just to keep at my desk. And my husband took his favorite mug to work so that he can fill it with coffee instead of using the disposable cardboard and plastic cups.
Recycling is great, but what are you doing to Reduce and Reuse?