Earthling design by Kitty Chan. The "Earthlings" were a school environmental group I had the joy of working with in the 1990s in Rotterdam. Kitty allowed me to use this as the logo for my company "Earthling Entreprises".

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle!

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle!

Like automatons we can chant out this slogan when asked what we can for environmental good, so successfully ingrained is the motto believed to date back to the first Earth Day on April 22nd, 1970. For many of us, the chanting is accompanied by visions of blue boxes and the logo with 3 arrows.

Is this good, or bad?

It is of course good that the solution for reducing waste is so well known. That the solution can be captured in just 3 words also certainly makes the point that it’s pretty simple to live more sustainably.

Except, something got lost along the way.

It is not Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.

It is REDUCE –> Reuse –> Recycle. The 3R slogan was born as the “waste hierarchy”. The 3 actions are not equal. “Reduce” is far, far more important than “Reuse” and the least impactful of the 3Rs is “Recycle”.

To use the case of the plastic water bottle to emphasize this, yes, you can recycle the bloody thing so it is not part of the legacy of plastics drifting and seeping around the planet BUT it shouldn’t even exist in the first place (at least in the developed world.) The tap water on northern Vancouver Island is of very high quality and by using it, you avoid the chemical and energy cost of the bottle being made, transported and . . . recycled.  If you have more urban tap-water, filtering can solve the issue of any taste you may not enjoy. 

Having the great privilege of working with children to help them feel empowered in a world with a lot of environmental gloom, I’ve polled them to find out what they believe to be the most important “R”. Almost always, the answer is “Recycle”.

Oops. This isn’t good. This really isn’t good. The shiny, most powerful, most hope-inspiring gem of environmental change has been misidentified. Striving to “Reduce” consumption of resources is the most powerful tool against all environmental problems; from waste management, to bioaccumulation and climate change. It is also the “R” that will give you the greatest bang for your buck – a buck you can cash in at the bank of happiness. Less misspent cash on disposable, nondurable and frivolous items and less wasted energy and other resources, means greater freedom from the consumer paradigm and a greater sense of hope for the future.

Earthling design by Kitty Chan.

How is that the most powerful “R” has become misidentified and that the whole concept of the 3R hierarchy has become lost? Is it because recycling is something tangible where it is difficult to visualize the action of “reducing”? I would argue that this should not be the case. 

“Reducing” should be the great green common denominator.

To use some examples applicable to teaching: we are leaving half the lights off in the classroom to use LESS energy; please use the paper in the recycling bin so we use LESS paper; close the door so we waste LESS heat; and how wonderful that you are using a reusable container for your lunch so there are LESS baggies bulging from school garbage cans and swirling around school yards. You get the idea.

Is it then because recycling allows us to have our plastic wrapped cake and eat it too? Certainly this is how the oh-so-powerful and oppressive consumer paradigm wishes to manipulate us i.e. “We’ll green-up making you feel less consumer guilt, but you’ve got to keep buying in the volume to which we’ve become accustomed”.

Or, are there many of us that don’t really believe how essential it is to get our act together for future generations and that by recycling we deliver an act of appeasement, just in case?

If you have read this far, thank you, for you are a significant player in creating positive environmental change. That’s the irony of writing an item such as this – it won’t reach the audience that needs to change the most; those who do not even recycle.

You care enough to want to refine what it is you already do.

Know that this is not about being perfect. It is about ensuring that our efforts have the greatest net gain and that we recognize the power that lies in “Reduce”.

Simply stated, less is more – more positive impact; more financial liberty; and more empowered, shiny-eyed, happy and healthy children in a future we cannot see.*

*Inspired by the quote “Children are the living messages we send to a time we will not see”  by John W. Whitehead. 

Earthling design by Kitty Chan.

Earthling design by Kitty Chan.