Wednesday, August 9, 2023

#221 / Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

Environmentalists are all familiar with the phrase, "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle." I would like to hope that even those individuals who wouldn't self-identify as "environmentalists" might know that phrase, too - and might take it to heart. 
The idea is that we should conduct our lives so that we "reduce" the use of "things," and that this should be our top priority. When we do manufacture, buy, and use things, our next priority should be to "reuse" them. In other words, we shouldn't throw things away when we're done with them. Finally, for those things we acquire, and can't "reuse," we should "recycle." 
That's the hierarchy. The idea is to eliminate "waste." I was, at one time, on the Board of Directors of Californians Against Waste, a California nonprofit organization that lobbies in the state legislature on recycling and waste reduction issues. I was the President of the Board of the Californians Against Waste Foundation, CAW's tax-exempt funding arm. I still think about that "Three R's" hierarchy, and I like to tell myself that I have, at least somewhat, internalized it. This is, of course, exactly what the United States Environmental Protection Agency urges us all to do. Here is the EPA's description of why it's so important to keep those "Three R's" in mind:

Reducing, reusing, and recycling can help you, your community, and the environment by saving money, energy, and natural resources. Recycling programs are managed at the state and local level. On the national level, EPA is working to build an economy that keeps materials, products, and services in circulation for as long as possible, what’s known as a “circular economy.”
Naturally, I was anxious to read Elizabeth Kolbert's article in The New Yorker, when the July 3, 2023, edition showed up in my mailbox. In the hard copy version of the magazine, Kolbert's article - focusing on plastics - is titled, "A Trillion Little Pieces." Online, which is where the following link will take you, Kolbert's article bears this title: "How Plastics Are Poisoning Us."  

I want to encourage you to read the article yourself (I am not really sure about what kind of a paywall The New Yorker might maintain against non-subscribers); however, let me warn you in advance that Kolbert's article is not exactly an "upper." As the online title makes clear, plastics are killing us, and there isn't some easy solution. "Recycling," for instance, isn't going to solve our plastics problem. Kolbert makes that really clear. Here's the conclusion to what she has to say:
“In the grand scheme of human existence, it wasn’t that long ago that we got along just fine without plastic,” [Matt] Simon points out [in his book, A Poison Like No Other: How Microplastics Corrupted Our Planet and Our Bodies]. This is true. It also wasn’t all that long ago that we got along just fine without Coca-Cola or packaged guacamole or six-ounce bottles of water or takeout everything. To make a significant dent in plastic waste—and certainly to “end plastic pollution”—will probably require not just substitution but elimination. If much of contemporary life is wrapped up in plastic, and the result of this is that we are poisoning our kids, ourselves, and our ecosystems, then contemporary life may need to be rethought. The question is what matters to us, and whether we’re willing to ask ourselves that question (emphasis added).

Just to make it perfectly clear, I will remove the "conditional" tense that Kolbert uses in her final paragraph. What Kolbert is saying is that the content and contours of our "contemporary life" must be "rethought." 

What does that mean, though - "rethought"? Among other things, it means that we can put two of those "Three R's" on the back burner, and take them off the "front burner," where they are right now. Only the first "R" really counts.

Reduce! Do less. Buy less. Have less. 

As Kolbert says, what really counts is whether we are willing to question the way we have structured our civilization, and whether we are willing to think seriously about that "Reduce" priority. 
Do less. Buy less. Have less. Are we "willing to ask ourselves that question?"

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