In recent years the idea of being eco-friendly and sustainable has grown more popular in many areas of life. A lot of Millennials and Gen Z, who have spearheaded this movement, strive to live a more sustainable lifestyle to create a better world for the future generations. When many people think of eco-friendly, recycling is often the first thing to come to mind. Recycling has been around for centuries, but it only became popular in the U.S. in the mid-1900s. However, as science advances we have found that recycling isn’t as great as we once thought. You may have heard of the three Rs and the Waste Hierarchy Pyramid. These two concepts come together to layout the best practices for living more sustainably.
When looking at the Waste Hierarchy Pyramid, recycling falls in the middle. Not the worst option, but not the best. Recycling is the process of converting waste into new products. For example, sending plastics to recycling plants to be processed and turned into new products. However, even though this is a good practice, it is not considered the best for a number of reasons. For starters, not every product is recyclable and there is not a lot of education around recycling which leads to items being dumped instead. Recycling is also not accessible to everyone. The 2021 census showed that only 32% of people in the U.S. recycle. Many larger cities and states require residents to recycle and provide the necessary tools to do so, but most of our nation does not require it and a lot of places do not have sites available to drop off recycling for those that choose to do so. As a result, the majority of people do not recycle and those recyclable items end up in landfills where they can take decades, or even centuries, to decompose.
Just above recycling on the pyramid you will find the option to reuse. Reusing, in my opinion, is the most popular, easiest, and most accessible of the three Rs. The name is self-explanatory, reuse various products. For example, reusing your shopping bags, plastic and paper alike, rather than throwing them away when you get home from the store. Reusable products have become widely available to the point where you can find a reusable option for most household items. Reusable zip lock bags, water bottles, coffee pods, dryer balls, “paper” towels, diapers, and even personal hygiene products are some examples of reusable products that you can purchase. However, even though reusing is better than recycling it is still not the best. Many reusable products won’t last forever and will eventually need to be disposed of or, ideally, recycled.
Next up on the pyramid we have “reduce.” Reduce is not the top of the pyramid, that would be “prevent,” but I think that the two options go hand in hand. Reducing waste is the practice of limiting the amount of waste you create. Reusing products is a great way to prevent and reduce waste in the long run, but reducing waste goes so much deeper than that. Using more sustainable products can help prevent and reduce the amount of pollutants and other forms of waste, such as chemical waste, which can have grave effects on the environment. Another great way to reduce waste at home is to practice upcycling.
Upcycling is the practice of taking an item that would otherwise be disposed of and turning it into something useful that can be reused overtime. A great example of upcycling is taking a plastic container, such as a ground coffee container, and using it for composting. This prevents the container from ending up in a landfill and reduces the waste created by food, like banana peels or scraps from chopping vegetables, and turns it into something useful. Upcycling is also very popular when it comes to clothing and furniture, especially in the form of thrifting.
As you can see, the three Rs have a lot of benefits, but one of the big ones that we haven’t discussed yet would be cost savings over time. I will be honest, some reusable products can be on the pricier side, but you don’t have to dive in headfirst. Buy a couple things when you can manage it and think of it as an investment, like a house without a monthly payment. Let’s say you spend $30 on a couple of reusable water bottles and use them everyday in lieu of buying a case of 24 disposable water bottles, which are usually around $4. If you drink the recommended amount of water every day (64 oz) that would be about four bottles a day, meaning one case wouldn’t even last one week for one person. If that were the case, then you would be spending roughly $20 per month on bottles of water, so in less than two months with the two reusable water bottles you will break even and save a little over $200 a year. While saving money is a great benefit, the biggest and most important benefit of living sustainably boils down to creating a better environment that will remain habitable for many generations to come in both the near and far future.