Recycling stuff: the THIRD of the three Rs

Recycle bin ©Janet Allen
Our recycle bin

Most people know about the 3 Rs: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. "Recycle" is the third of the trio, but that gets all the attention.

I wouldn't want to eliminate recycling efforts, but why is that the focus? What happened to "Reduce" and "Reuse"? That's where the real benefits lie.

Why recycling isn't the solution

Recycling, after all, is better termed "down-cycling" since the materials generally can't be infinitely recycled even if people bothered to recycle them all.

For example, recycled office paper becomes lower quality paper becomes newspaper becomes whatever. Office paper doesn't recycle itself into the same high-quality office paper.

But the main reason recycling isn't enough is that for every item produced, there are many more resources used upstream to produce it. The EPA estimates that 98% of all waste is industrial (a large percentage of which is created by manufacturing new products) and only 2% is household waste. We can recycle our own items, but we can't recycle all the stuff (some of which is toxic) that was used to produce them in the first place.

The bottom line: Although we recycle all that can be recycled, recycling doesn't let us off the hook to reduce and reuse.

Some recycling is really recycling

Carpet ©Janet Allen
Our FLOR carpet by Interface

Some products are closer to true recycling. One example is our carpeting. It's FLOR by Interface. Interface has made an intense effort to be environmentally friendly as a company—not just "patching" or "greenwashing"—but fundamentally changing the paradigm.

This is similar (especially in the commercial applications) to buying services, not products since commercial institutions just buy the carpeting service, and Interface replaces as needed.

In our home situation, we can send the carpeting back to be completely recycled so all the initial materials are recaptured and reused.

On a practical basis, it delays the time before we would need to buy a new carpet since individual tiles can be replaced if they're ruined for some reason, or individual tiles can be taken up and washed.

If we were ambitious, we could theoretically take up all the tiles and move the more worn ones in the traffic patterns to the edges, and the like-new edge pieces moved to the center.

So far, though, after quite a few years, it still looks good enough that we don't need to bother.

Another bonus is that with these tiles: It was a simple matter to install the carpeting ourselves, saving quite a bit of money.

Recycling our stuff

Onondaga County, where we live, is a leader in recycling. OCRRA (Onondaga County Resource Recovery Agency) makes it easy to do, and every year it increases the types of items that can be recycled.

They make it easy for us to recycle because things don't have to be perfected washed out, we don't have to remove labels, and we can just throw everything into one bin (although paper is all put into a large paper bag before it's placed in the recycling bin).

Although we recycle everything and are happy to see that Onondaga County is doing a pretty good job with this, we still have some concerns.

First, not everyone recycles, though Onondaga County has a pretty high recycling rate.

Second, Onondaga County is also associated with a garbage-burning incinerator, which spews who-knows-what into the air. I'm not confident it's adequately monitored.

Third, "recycling" doesn't really recover the material, it just delays its final demise. And, of course, there's a lot of energy used in the process from trucking it to the recycling center, to remaking the material into something else, to sending it back out as a new product.

Finally, because recycling is a "good thing to do," people seem to think it's the extent of their responsibility. They may even be less inclined to choose better options since "at least they recycle" their unsustainably-produced products.

In our county, we can recycle the following six kinds of things:

Newspapers etc.First, newspapers and magazines, catalogs, and softcover books. We certainly have lots of newspaper, some magazines, fewer and fewer catalogs (since we went on our campaign to eliminate junk mail). They also will accept softcover books, it hard to believe that this is the best use of them. I'd prefer to give them to someone.

Cardboard etc.We can recycle cardboard, which we sometimes do (although we keep quite a few empty boxes in the attic). They also accept pizza, pasta, and cereal boxes, but we seldom have these since we just cook food from scratch.

Papers etc. We recycle papers, mail, and envelopes, but these have been very much reduced with our junk mail campaign, and we also take out any usable paper before recycling them.

Bottles They accept #1 and #2 bottles, emptied and rinsed, no lids. Most bottles are of these two types, so that takes care of our bottles.

Cans and jars We seldom buy things in cans anymore because of the BPA they contain. We've saved many glass jars, especially the nicely sized and shaped peanut butter jars, but there's a limit to the number we can keep and use. With regret, we're starting to recycle these. Some things you can't solve on your own.

#5 plastic tubs Previously they wouldn't accept these, so it's nice to be able to recycle them now. Again, though, we now have many fewer tubs than we used to have since we make our own butter and our own yogurt.

Municipal composting

We're pleased that OCRRA is also working on large-scale composting. This isn't something homeowners participate in, though. It's designed to recycle the gigantic amounts of waste generated by institutions, grocery stores, and the like.