I hate to be a downer. After all, I engage in a downsized, simplified, and organized life because of its positive and joyful benefits. Most strategies I employ to reduce my impact on the environment are things I like to do and have other benefits (like being healthier for me too). But I’d like to share some perspective on recycling and other strategies that seem green but aren’t as much as one might think. Not to stop you from taking these actions, but to connect the dots on why having less stuff, really and truly, is better for the environment and yourself.
A quick history: While recycling paper has been around since ancient times, it wasn’t until World War II that the U.S. saw more deliberate and widespread collection campaigns for tin, rubber, steel, and paper recycling. In the 1960’s curbside pickups picked up stream which continued through the 1970’s and 1980’s but we didn’t reach a 30% participation rate until the late 1990’s. That rate hasn’t grown much since. At first we recycled out of necessity; now we do it to address our overwhelming waste stream. But it’s not enough.
When I talk to people about being environmentally friendly, most everyone says that they recycle. Recycling is seen as an environmentally proactive choice. Instead of the landfill, an item has a chance for a second life. It’s the better choice between the two but only marginally so. After plastic has been recycled once, it cannot be recycled again. If there aren’t buyers for recycled materials, they go to the landfill. Often in the collection and transport of recycling, a fraction of these materials become litter because of wind and carelessness.
Believing something will be recycled may lead to not so environmentally friendly actions. For example, someone buys a case of single-use plastic water bottles. They know that plastic isn’t the best for the environment but …. you can just throw them in the recycling bin when done! This somehow eases the concern about making the purchase.
From my perspective, buying a so-called green product is similar to recycling. If you are going to acquire a product regardless, better to go with the more sustainably sourced version. But buying a green product is still buying a product. And, similarly, you may have skipped out on the product altogether but, since there is a green version of it, you see that a green light to buy it.
Green products are touted as “saving the planet,” but how could a product save the planet unless it was adding something positive back to the Earth? It’s much the opposite. Consider the energy used in it’s extraction, manufacture and transportation, and the natural resources from which it’s made. A green product may be better than a conventional one, but be aware of whether that encourages you to buy something you otherwise wouldn’t buy.
A single-use, organic yogurt cup placed in the recycling bin is still wasteful, it’s just less so. If you make your own yogurt instead, you save money, resources, and probably have healthier yogurt. For so long, we used bars of soap. Then, liquid hand soap became popular in homes in the 1980’s and now they are ubiquitous (and more expensive). A liquid hand soap dispenser filled with organic soap still comes in a plastic bottle or bag. Better to just buy a bar of soap that’s package-free. These are more minimalist approaches the basic needs in life.
Minimalism sweeps away so many possible decision points and trade-offs. Simply by having less and a more basic or handmade version, you don’t have to figure out which product is the most environmentally friendly because you’re not acquiring the product in the first place. Yes, it’s better to recycle than not, but it’s far better to reduce and reuse.