Ask an Environmentalist: What’s your top recycling tip?

As I’ve been talking with people around Allen County the last several weeks, many have asked, “What’s your top recycling tip?”

I thought that question would be a good one to answer for my first edition of this green living advice column. 

My advice is: Try not to have to recycle at all.

The answer is often met with a long pause followed by a slight look of disappointment. 

If you’re living a “normal” American lifestyle, you will inevitably produce trash, and surely some of that can be recycled. You want to be environmentally responsible, so that means you need to recycle, right? 

My point in answering this question by saying you shouldn’t have to recycle is to get you to think of the three R’s (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle) as a hierarchy. Don’t automatically go to recycling as the first step. 

Reduce and reuse before you recycle.

You most likely learned the three R’s mantra when you were growing up, but many people don’t realize that you should be practicing it in the order it is written: reduce first, reuse next, and recycle as a last resort.

The most important thing we can do for our planet is to whittle down the amount of waste we’re producing in the first place.

So where do we begin?

Try to think about all the disposable and recyclable materials you use in a day. ACDEM’s current campaign focuses on reducing the use of plastic straws in restaurants precisely because they are an easy place to start.

By decreasing the number of items that pass through our lives for a short period of use, we hope we can inspire further reflection on other short-use products—grocery bags, coffee cups, bottled water, plastic utensils, you name it.

Start small. Consider: What do you often take without even thinking about it when it is offered to you? Do you need that straw or extra plastic bag at the grocery store? Could you choose “naked produce” over plastic-wrapped produce?

Maybe some items you regularly use are available in bulk and can go into your own container.

After you think about your daily routine, consider seasonal events that cause waste.

We are coming up on spring and summer party season. Could you use real plates and silverware at a family reunion or graduation gathering? What if you borrowed some décor and got creative with mixing and matching things you have for other occasions instead of hitting up the party store for some disposable adornments. Maybe you could buy a serving dish at a thrift store for your contribution to a party’s meal, and then leave it there for the host to do the same at his or her next function.

It’s small changes like this that go a long way in helping us reduce the amount of waste we create and encourage our neighbors to do the same.

Once you begin reducing, consider the ways you can replace some of your wasteful habits with reusable options. Train yourself to take reusable versions of items like coffee cups, straws, and grocery bags with you when you leave home.

Are you the type that might carry a collapsible silicone bowl for leftovers from a restaurant? I am, and my hope is that one day there won’t be a weird factor around it, although I am aware there still is.

Recycling is awesome. Definitely recycle everything that you can. But remember that producing anything takes energy, raw materials, labor, transportation, and probably causes some kind of undesirable byproduct.  Even recycling itself requires an immense input of effort to gather, haul, sort, clean, transport, and remanufacture stuff into other stuff. 

If you start to put yourself in the mindset of reducing and reusing first, you will see that you’re recycling less and having less of an impact on our limited natural resources.

Read more articles by Jodi Leamon.

Jodi Leamon is a Fort Wayne native with degrees in Environmental Studies from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington and Biology from the University of Illinois Chicago. Send her your questions at Jodi.leamon@co.allen.in.us.
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