Reduce, Reuse, Recycle! You’ve surely heard it before. The “three Rs” of waste reduction, often represented by the triple arrow triangle printed on recycling bins and plastic bottles everywhere. These three words are simple steps that everyone can take to prevent waste from reaching the landfill.
But, in the interest of catchy alliteration, has this phrase misstated the importance of each action? The U.S. Pollution Prevention Act of 1990, which serves as the source of the “three Rs” (called R3), intended the following:
“The Pollution Prevention Act of 1990 sets up the R3 hierarchy of preferred approaches to protecting the environment. First and foremost, pollution should be prevented at the source whenever feasible (Reduce). If waste streams cannot be prevented, they should be Reused, Recycled, or treated. Disposal should be the last resort.”
In representing R3, Sandia National Laboratories uses instead a trapezoidal hierarchy with “Reduce” shown at the top as the largest shape, and “Reuse” “Recycle” “Treatment” and “Disposal” each whittling down in successively smaller shapes. This graphic clearly conveys that reduction should be the top priority.
Then, why does it seem that recycling is the most touted and famous of the “R”s? Why is the triangular arrow symbol equally representative of both R3 and recycling?
For one, recycling is an easier sell than asking people to stop buying the newest gadget or to carry reusable mugs everywhere they go. With a toss of yesterday’s newspaper into the appropriate bin, anyone can be an environmentalist. The responsibility is off your shoulders as soon as the paper leaves your curb and starts its journey of transformation into tomorrow’s newspaper.
But, what happens when this system breaks down? The New York Times had an article last month about how the market for recyclable materials has slumped dramatically in the struggling economy. Instead of being recycled, your newspaper is likely languishing in a warehouse, perhaps fated to the landfill after all. The economic incentives that have buoyed the recycling market have disappeared.
So, what to do? Certainly, don’t stop recycling – the market will hopefully rebound and sending waste directly to the landfill is still a far worse choice. But, perhaps give a harder look to reduction, for both waste and energy. Recycling (like buying carbon credits) can make you feel better about your consumption, but cannot be counted on to ease the impact that the initial action made on the world.