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Earth Month Tips: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

This week, we’re focusing on the Three Rs: Reduce, Re-use, and Recycle. It can be tempting to feel good about purchases we make as long as the items or their packaging can be recycled. But, while 80% of what we get rid of could be recycled, our actual recycling rate is closer to 30%. Sometimes we forget to recycle or find it inconvenient. In addition, the recycling process requires energy, which may mean more greenhouse gases being released into the atmosphere.

A far better plan is to only purchase things we actually need or Reduce – our first R. Most of us have more food in our kitchens than we can possibly eat before it spoils, clothes in our closets we’ve literally never worn, and lots of toys our kids have lost interest in.

Ask yourself… W.M.K.D.? (i.e., What Would Marie Kondo Do?). The first step to reducing is to make and stick to shopping lists – even for non-grocery items like clothes. Keep track of what needs to be replaced so you can be on the lookout for a high quality item at a good deal. Although you may spend more on the front end, better quality items will last longer meaning you won’t be adding so much junk to landfills and oceans. Higher quality items are often easier to repair (Look! Another R!) if they break or tear, meaning you get more life out of them usually without much more expense.

Re-use, the second R, means avoiding disposable, single-use items like we talked about last week, and not always replacing what we have for newer/bigger/better. Learning to re-use can be difficult if you’re used to the novelty of having new stuff. Many of us use shopping to cope with stress but this habit isn’t good for our earth or our wallets. If this is a challenge for you, consider reading up on minimalism.  Of course, you don’t have to subscribe 100% but you may be able to draw from this philosophy techniques for focusing on your needs instead of your wants. Probably that means don’t ever go to Target. Using what we already have until it’s no longer functional or repairable can be hard to get used to, especially for our kids, but you’ll likely find there are small ways you can adjust to this practice. Items in your home may eventually end up in a landfill but re-using significantly reduces how much we add. Re-using can also change how we acquire things in the first place. You’d be amazed at the cool stuff you can find at thrift stores and consignment sales and the hunt is half the fun. Your kid needs a costume for school? Borrow from a neighbor or buy secondhand. Get books, movies, and music from the library or go digital. Look for small ways to cut back on how often you acquire new things and save your splurges for the really special stuff.

Finally, we come to Recycle – probably the R with which we’re all most familiar. Most of us likely have curbside recycling available but there’s often a lot of confusion as to what we can recycle and how we should prepare items for recycling. Check out these general recycling tips and this page more specific to the Birmingham area. In general, it’s important to only put in your recycling bin items that you’re pretty sure can be recycled, otherwise you could risk spoiling the whole batch. Dump out and rinse out cans and bottles, but no need to dry them completely. Paper products that have been in contact with food unfortunately have to be tossed so they don’t contaminate other recyclables – a good reason to buy recycled paper products whenever possible or, better yet, to stick with reusable items. For those times when you forgot your canvas bags at stores, Publix and Target recycle plastic bags and a lot of the packaging for things like toilet paper can go in with those! Also, Target recycles glass and Publix recycles egg cartons and foam trays like you get from the meat department. If you want to take Recycling a step further, there are several programs for specific items and brands. A great source to check out is TerraCycle. You can request to join recycling programs for the brands you use most like Gillette, Burt’s Bees, and Garnier. Once you’re in the program, companies send you a prepaid shipping label and you mail off your empties. The Gimme 5 program we talked about last week for recycling #5 plastics has bins at participating Whole Foods stores, including the one in Hoover, or you can send in items by mail. As we just recently shared, Crayola works with schools to accept markers that would otherwise be bound for the trash through their ColorCycle Program.  You can send old crayons to Crazy Crayons.

If you need help getting motivated to put the 3 Rs into practice, spend some time googling words and phrases like, “Landfill,” “Garbage patch,” and “Ocean trash.” Keep these images in your mind before you shop so you can decide whether you really need the item you’re buying or have something already that will work just as well. For more ideas, check out this site. If you want to get your kids practicing the 3 Rs, visit NIEHS Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. Next month, we’ll be taking a tour of the Southern Environmental Center on the campus of Birmingham-Southern College and learning all about our garbage problem. Stay tuned for more on that!

About Kristen:

Kristen is a local Mom to three, ages 12, 9 and almost 6. She’s the author of our Parenting with a PhD series who also happens to have a passion for educating others about the benefits of living a greener life. She hopes that leading by example will encourage others to try some alternate ways of shopping, and incorporating small changes that can make a big impact on our future.

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