Since we were kids, we’ve been told to reduce, reuse, and recycle...but what does that really mean?
The phrase “reduce, reuse, recycle” was created in the mid-1970s when we started to become more aware of our impact on the environment. Air pollution was terrible. Water quality was worse. And while waste management had improved over previous decades, an attitude of “out of sight, out of mind” prevailed.
Advocates for improved recycling and waste management infrastructure have made lots of progress since then, but over the years, we seem to have lost the focus on reducing our plastic consumption and reusing the plastic we can’t avoid.
Only 9% of all the plastic ever produced has been recycled. Even less has been recycled more than once. There’s a reason that “reduce, reuse, recycle” goes in that order. It goes in order of effectiveness. Yet so much emphasis has been placed on recycling as a final solution to plastic waste that we’ve lost sight of the first and most important R’s: reducing and reusing.
Reducing your consumption of plastic should be the first priority
Plastic doesn’t biodegrade, or get absorbed back into the environment, which means it can sit in our landfills for hundreds of years where it breaks apart into smaller and smaller pieces called microplastics. That’s why refusing single-use plastic and reducing the amount of plastics we consume is the single best way to keep plastic out of our landfills and out of our oceans. One of the most effective things you can do to reduce your plastic footprint is to swap single-use plastic for sustainable and reusable alternatives like these.
Reusing, repurposing, and upcycling is your second-best option
While it’s easy to eliminate single-use plastic from our lives, this material is used in so many applications that some plastics are more difficult to avoid. From our cell phones and our clothes to our cars and our homes, plastic is everywhere.
So when we can’t reduce our consumption of plastic, we should find ways to reuse it. Instead of throwing something away that you don’t want anymore, try donating it or giving it to a friend who might want it. You can also upcycle items that no longer serve their original purpose into DIY crafts, gifts, or decorations. The internet is full of ideas on how to upcycle, so get inspired and use your thoughtfulness and creativity to transform trash into treasure!
Recycle only as a last resort
The recycling symbol you see on different products doesn’t necessarily mean it can be recycled. This symbol is known as the Resin ID Code, which helps recyclers identify different types of plastic so they can separate high-value plastics that can be recycled from low-value and non-recyclable plastics.
So if reducing and reusing are absolutely not options, then recycling is your third-best choice. However, there is a common misconception in places with access to curbside recycling that this disposal method prevents plastic from entering our landfills forever.
The truth is that plastics can only be recycled so many times before they are chemically unable to be reheated and reshaped into something else. Unfortunately, this means that virtually all plastics will eventually end up in a landfill when they reach the end of their recycling life.
It’s also important to note that some plastics can never be recycled, not even once. This includes any kind of styrofoam as well as plastic food wrapping, plastic straws, and even pizza boxes with oil stains.
If you’d like to learn more about the different types of plastic and what to avoid, check out our Beginner’s Guide to Plastic.
When you recycle, make sure you’re following local guidelines
All recycling programs are unique and will vary from community to community, so check the guidelines from your local government or recycling center to make sure you’re following them properly. This is crucial because mixing non-recyclable and recyclable plastics can cause contamination that sends recyclable materials to the landfill.
Earth 911 has one of North America’s most extensive recycling databases and is a great resource that can help you become the best recycler possible. Simply enter your zip code and the material you want to recycle to find your local guidelines.
If you have plastic or other trash you can’t recycle by following your local recycling guidelines, see if a company like TerraCycle will accept it. From cigarette butts and candy wrappers to fabrics and electronics, TerraCycle takes all kinds of hard-to-recycle materials and finds ways to recycle, upcycle, and repurpose them so they stay out of our landfills and the ocean. They have solutions for homes, schools, and businesses, so take their quiz and see which of TerraCycle’s Zero Waste Boxes is right for you!
And finally, if you’ve exhausted all these methods, then it’s time to put that material in the trash because responsibly landfilled waste is still better for the planet than environmental litter.
More ways to get involved
Plastic pollution is a complex issue and there is no one single action that’s going to change the tide. Ending this global crisis will require lots of small actions from lots of people every single day.
Every time you shop 4ocean, you’re investing in the future of our planet by funding the removal of trash that’s already polluting our oceans, rivers, and coastlines, while supporting the research, innovation, technology, advocacy, and education initiatives we invest in to help prevent more plastic from entering our oceans.There are lots of ways to get involved in the clean ocean movement. Just remember that small acts add up, which means every piece of single-use plastic you refuse, every bad habit you change, and every pound you pull makes a difference.