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Sunday, May 6, 2012

Recycling is good. Reuse and Reduction is better

Reduce and Reuse Trump Recycling

By Frank Carini,
We need to cut down on the amount of stuff we recycle. Recycling has its merits, don’t get me wrong, but it’s a little passé. It’s not the cool thing to do anymore. Of course, it still beats burying what we don’t want in landfills or burning it in incinerators.

But there are hipper ways to lessen the clutter. We should start by reducing the amount of crap we make, buy and use.

Do we need to drink from Styrofoam cups or ship boxes packed with Styrofoam “peanuts”? Styrofoam discarded today will hang around for close to 500 years. Why do we continue to make it and use it? What are we trying to protect with all those polluting peanuts?
The United States is one of world’s largest producers of trash. We generate 1,609 pounds of trash per person, per year. Buried in our landfills are car moustaches, denture bottle openers, mood mud, flying pig hats, inflatable tongues and Santa Clauses that defecate candy.
If for some unique reason you need one of these resource-wasting products, at least reuse it.
Reuse shouldn’t be confused with recycling. Reuse means any activity that lengthens the life of an item. Recycling is the reprocessing of an item into a raw material for use in a new product. Reuse is nothing new; we’ve just forgotten how to do it.
Reuse is accomplished by purchasing durable goods, buying and selling in the used marketplace — Freecycle and Craigslist, for example — and attending to maintenance and repair. It means developing products that are capable of being remanufactured. It means not buying disposable crap.
Reuse confronts the challenges of waste reduction and ever-shrinking landfill space. It can support a productive economy. It reduces the strain on valuable resources, such as fuel, forests and water supplies, and helps protect wildlife habitats. It creates less air and water pollution than making a new item or recycling another.
Look at it this way. Take the old desktop computer you want to make disappear. If you allow it to be reused, another person, who needs a computer but can’t afford it, gets access to one. Give it to Free Geek Providence, which donates reused computers to those who lack the resources to obtain such technology.
If you opt to recycle it, you drop it off at a recycling center, most likely the Central Landfill in Johnston. It will then be stripped of its internal components for resale, and the metal and plastics separated and melted. These melted materials are, in turn, used to make new computers.
In fact, the manufacturing of new plastic from recycled plastic requires two-thirds of the energy used in virgin plastic manufacturing, and recycled plastic often isn’t used for the same products over and over again.
Basically, recycling involves the use of additional energy and the outlay of additional expenses to convert old items into new ones. It’s an industrial process that collects used materials, and melts, smashes, shreds or otherwise transforms them into raw materials.
Recycling isn’t an environmentally benign practice. Recycling institutionalizes disposables — think plastic bags — and single-use items — think juice boxes — by treating them after they have been created. Recycling helps guarantee unnecessary items will continue to be manufactured.
When something is reused, there is no additional strain on the planet’s finite resources. No old-growth forests are clear-cut, no new wells are drilled in the Gulf of Mexico, no rivers are dammed up and there are no fleets of fossil-fuel-chugging trucks duplicating the routes already driven by garbage trucks to take recyclables to facilities that burn energy and emit pollution.
The practice of reusing doesn’t get lost in the politics of industry-supported “environmentalism,” and it preempts consumption.
Obviously, recycling is less wasteful than burying and burning what we no loner want, but the recycling wave helped turn us into rampant consumers. It helped create a throwaway society, as if recycling somehow justifies buying a case of petroleum-based plastic bottles filled with tap water and carrying it out of the store in a plastic bag.
Every 60 minutes in the United States, some 250,000 plastic bottles are thrown out — often with water trapped inside.
In fact, the world’s most abused and wasted natural resource is water. We could better reuse it if we collected it in rain barrels, instead of letting it get washed away across asphalt, concrete and other impervious surfaces.
Recycling is important, but we can’t recycle our way out of disposability. It’s not absolution for our consumptive sins. Reduce and reuse are much more effective in reducing our waste stream.
Frank Carini is the executive director of ecoRI News.