We have probably all heard the line, “Reduce, re-use, re-cycle” before. Here in the Pacific Northwest, reducing trash waste and recycling whenever possible have been ordinary habits for most people for quite some time. Or at least the resources to do so have been available, whether or not everyone chooses to use them. But what about that FOURTH “R”? We would like to add “Re-purpose” to the ordinary process of responsibly disposing of waste. Let’s consider the importance of each.
Okay, so reduce what? And how do we do it? Quite simply, reduce the amount of trash you dispose of, and even the amount of recyclable waste you toss into the bin. Think about the sheer amount of garbage we set out at the curb each week, and make a commitment to set out less. Nevermind who pays for the pickup! Perhaps you live in a situation where your trash is covered within your rent payment so the monetary cost is not a concern for you. Great! But the pile of trash you personally add to the mysterious Land-of-Wherever-Trash-Ends-Up” should be a concern because when we multiply that pile by the population of the United States, that adds up to a pretty massive pile.
But even after we commit to setting out less trash, how do we follow through? Simple. Find other places to put it! The easiest issues are to first make sure that recyclables go into a recycle bin instead of the trash bin (more on recycling later). Next, if you have a yard waste bin, use it! Not only your grass clippings and branch trimmings can go in there, but so can food-soiled food and beverage containers! These all go to a separate area where they can be incinerated and/or composted rather than just dumped into a landfill…a great choice for those items. Of course, if you live in an area where you have a space that could be designated the “clipping corner”, we would definitely suggest piling those up and letting your own property benefit from the additional organic material staying around. Grass and leaves will rot down into fertile mulch in just about a year even if not attended, so you are really just allowing Nature to create new dirt as you pile up those trimmings. If you do not have the space for that, you might ask a neighbor or a friend who gardens if they would like your trimmings (assuming they are free of icky chemicals). Otherwise, utilize that yard waste bin and keep them out of the regular trash.
Now, we said we would get back to recycling as it relates to reducing waste in the first place. What we meant by that was that we can choose at the point of purchase which material we are most comfortable with eventually tossing into a recycle bin or finding a new use for at home. Personally, we try to avoid plastic whenever we can, not only because it very often does not actually get recycled at the end but may very well be dropped in someone else’s backyard in a giant pile, but because the process of producing it in the first place is expensive and toxic to the environment. (For some excellent insight into the problems with plastic water bottles, please check out The Story of Stuff’s recent video on the subject!)
But let’s not villainize plastic water bottles…there are many household items that we have choices how to use and dispose of! Another example would be any other packaging that can be reduced. Can we purchase items in one larger box rather than multiple small containers? Can we purchase butter wrapped in paper rather than in a plastic tub? Can we use cloth re-usable shopping bags instead of plastic throw away grocery bags? Lastly, how about investing in a few durable storage containers for the kitchen instead of going through hundreds of plastic zip-style bags every year? Yes, these are all items that COULD go into the recycle bin when we are through with them…but then we just go out and buy more of them. It is important to remember that our only concern is not just recycling the product at the end of its usefulness, but the energy and toxicity involved in producing that item in the first place, as well as our own financial expenditure of constantly purchasing more items that are used once and then thrown away. Reducing begins at the point of purchase. Moving on…
Seem like a no-brainer? It might be, to some people. But we live in a throw-away-minded society, so a little reminding is always a good idea.
Does anyone remember the days when flour sack dish towels were in every kitchen? Or ow about Mom tucking a cotton handkerchief under her children’s pillow at night? We did not always have everything disposable. There was a time when paper towels were sort of a luxury for when you had to clean up something super-icky and then toss the towel…but the cloth towels still did their duty for drying dishes and wiping counter tops. Nowadays, some folks panic when they run out of paper towels or paper plates as if the world is coming to an end! Why? Because we are accustomed to the disposable variety being available. How do we break the habit of disposable items such as these?
Just stop using them.
Go through withdrawal.
Reach for them a dozen times before you start remembering they aren’t there.
You will soon realize that they are not nearly as vital to your existence as you thought.
How about glass juice bottles? Why not hold onto them and use them for storing cold water or iced tea in the fridge? Or cardboard milk cartons? Cutting off the bottom six inches produces an excellent planting pot for any gardener’s seedlings. (If you don’t garden, you might have a friend who does.) See what we are getting at? Stop and consider before just throwing something away…either you or someone you know might just be able to re-use it in another way!
Food waste is another area where we can vastly reduce our trash, especially if we garden. All non-meat and non-fat products can go into a compost bin to create fertile additions to vegetable and flower gardens. Those who do not garden or grow plants could consider offering theirs to a friend or neighbor who does, or once again that yard waste bin comes in handy! Compostable food items and kitchen scraps can all go into the yard waste bin provided by many trash companies, usually for no additional cost. Even many apartment buildings now offer separate containers for disposing of compostable items, making it an available option for more people.
This is sort of an obvious one, but we often take it for granted. As we mentioned before, we need to be careful that “it’s recyclable” does not become our excuse for not caring about packaging. There was a recent news story about those large plastic bag recycle drop points in grocery markets…customers could return their used bags with the assumption that the bags were carted off and the bags recycled into something useful. The truth was discovered that in the majority of cases, those plastic bags were actually NOT being recycled at all, but instead were simply being dumped alongside the trash in a local landfill. This is where it is the consumer’s responsibility to do our homework and know for sure where the end actually is for the items we place in the recycle bin.
Of course, it has been shown that tin and aluminum cans, glass jars, and newspaper/magazines ARE regularly recycled and DO significantly reduce waste in our landfills. It is also an economic benefit to those employed in the recycling and manufacturing industries, as processing those used materials creates an industry all its own that employs workers and produces a usable product. Recycling responsibly has a definite place in reducing waste, so we hope everyone will use this resource whenever it is available.
Ok, so now we get to that fourth “R” that we mentioned. Some things just cannot be re-used in their current condition, nor can they be recycled and re-manufactured into a totally brand new product. But they CAN sometimes be used again, either in whole or in part, for something for which they were not originally designed. Follow me…
Let’s say we have an old bookshelf and an old window taking up space behind our garage. The shelf doesn’t look like we would want it in our house, and the window is simply not needed but is intact. We could haul them to the dump, or…
we could lay the shelf down on its back and lean the window over it at a slight angle, set seedlings between the upright shelves, and voila! An instant cold frame to help garden seedlings get stronger outside before planting into the ground.
Or perhaps we have some old furniture that is just not salvageable as furniture, and truly will have to go to a landfill. Do we have to drag the entire thing off in all its space-hogging glory? What if we have an old, smelly, stained sofa that needs to go away? Could we save and re-use anything from it, such as the wood that comprises its frame? (For a great tale of re-purposing and what one old sofa did to contribute to a local garden read, The sofa in the window…an adventure in re-purposing!)
Have an box of old mildewy books that have to be junked? Why not burn them and use the ashes in the compost bin or garden? Perhaps a bunch of old clothes that are too stained or torn to be suitable for a thrift store? They could be donated to a friend or group who make quilts…small fabric pieces and buttons can be salvaged from even the ickiest of clothing. Peanut butter jars with colored lids can become kitchen storage containers. Pretty cooking oil bottles can hold mouthwash in the bathroom! Old encyclopedias can be stacked next to a chair to make a convenient small side table. Old blankets or sheets can be sewn into tote bags. Flannel sheets make excellent kitchen towels! The list for each of us would be endless.
So, there are a few thoughts on the “4 R’s” and why they are important to us here at The Community GATE…and why we hope they will be important to YOU, too. We cannot all do massive things to change the world, but each of us CAN do a few very small things that when added together might bring positive change to our own neighborhood. And what is the world anyway, except a great big collection of neighborhoods all rolled up into a ball?
As always, we welcome your thoughts and input, so we hope to hear from you.