Most of us know the tri-arrow symbol we associate with “recycling,” but the three arrows are actually meant to represent the concepts of “reduce, reuse, AND recycle.” So, the notion of pre-cycling captures the reduce and reuse steps of the cycle. Reducing the waste we create is something that takes some forethought. A lot of us assume that we can “just” recycle some goods, and our job is done. But recycling really does use a lot of energy in and of itself. In some cases, objects that are represented as recyclable are actually limited in their ability to be recycled. Many communities have limitations on what they can accept for recycling, especially in the way of plastics. Glass, aluminum, tin, and steel are considered to be the most readily recyclable. Glass bottles are the easiest to recycle because they can just be washed, refilled, and recapped. If you live in a place that continues a bottle deposit program, you know that you can get money back on glass bottles. Also, aluminum is another recyclable that pays per pound in most communities. So, I’m just going to come right out and say it. I hate Tetra-Paks, juice boxes, drink pouches, chip bags, and plastic bottles of WATER. The plastic water bottles are an easy fix–don’t buy them, find a water fountain, buy a portable water bottle of your choosing, or if you are desperate, go ahead and buy the water and refill it for free! It’s water, people. If you don’t like the way it tastes from your tap, buy a filter. Yes, filters are meant to be disposable, but they last for about 2-3 months and is tiny by comparison to the hundreds of bottles you’d buy for “good-tasting” water. And we all know that much of the bottled waters we have spent extra money to buy is another city’s tap water, right? It’s time to get over this mindset that bottled water is a good idea. It’s not. Tetra-Paks and juice boxes (often one in the same) are convenient storage containers for liquids and come in variations on the theme of cardboard on the outside, aluminum and plastic on the inside. The plastic is supposed to bpa-free, which is better for the foods contained inside (at least it makes them healthier to eat). They are also exceptional at storing milk and other “spoilable” liquids for a very long time. Better storage does mean less waste of the product itself, but these packages are very difficult to recycle. Some Tetra-Paks exclude aluminum, which makes them somewhat easier to recycle, but not many municipalities even accept Tetra-Paks (at least in the U.S.). It is the complexity of the multilayer packaging that makes it difficult to separate and repurpose. Your best bet, if possible, is to avoid buying products in these packages. What’s worse, perhaps than the the Tetra-Paks, is the “drink pouch.” Those infamous Capri Sun silver packets of usually 10% juice + water + sugar came into existence about 25 years ago. That makes 25 years of kid-licious drinks packaged in this (from Kraft’s FAQ page): “CAPRI SUN pouches are polyester-reverse side printed to aluminum then laminated to polyethylene (a plastic polymer). Unfortunately, this packaging is not recyclable.” If you have been to a kid’s birthday party or soccer game or during lunchtime at a school cafeteria, you know the popularity of these never-gonna-be-recycled packages of drinks. The best thing for this? Do not purchase them, unless you absolutely must. I don’t want to say an aluminum can of anything is better, but at least you can recycle cans. So, now that you are thinking about it, you are probably thinking about the packaging for granola bars, candy, chips, heck, even the plastic netting that a 3-pound bag of onions comes in…what do we do with it? Obviously, you can stop buying pre-packaged foods and non-essential packaging. It takes some training, but start a hoard of paper bags and use them for whatever…paper is much more easily recycled, but a good paper bag will last at least 10 uses. Those plastic netting bags can be wadded up and used as a kitchen sink scrub, or taken back to the grocery store to be used for your next batch of fresh fruits and vegetables. I’ve been using one to collect the fallen pecans around the neighborhood. It’s healthier to avoid complex packaging, especially when it comes to food. I know you want to still live a “regular” life, though, and the idea that you are going to make all of your own stuff from “scratch” to save on packaging is probably not realistic. With a little planning on the weekends, though, you can create some healthier snacks that can be taken to school or work in reusable containers (optionally wrapped in paper or aluminum foil), or stored at home in a cookie jar or other reusable container. I know it sounds daunting for some parents, but when you think about what all goes into the landfill from just your house, and multiply that by all of the people in your town, and multiply that by all of the towns in your state, country, continent…we are a wasteful bunch of slugs that need to reconsider what we are doing to the planet just for the sake of sugar, water, and snacks. I ran across this quote recently and I think it is something to consider: “The frog does not drink up the pond in which he lives.” ~ Native American Proverb, Sioux Sorry for being on the preachy side, but it’s time to consider the consequences of our actions. This is just one tiny aspect of the impact we have with our carelessness…think of what impact we can have if we try to change it for the better with intent!
If you don’t want to be green because you think it is too hard, and you’ll have to give up too many things you don’t WANT to give up, remember it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Make the changes that you feel like you can, and when you feel like you are ready to take the next step, take it. I promise the sense of accomplishment you’ll have will make you feel like doing more. And knowing that you are becoming part of the solution in a variety of efforts (improving your own life, your environment, preventing future health issues in your life and maybe your kids’ lives, maybe your parents’ and friends lives, maybe even your pets), is its own reward.
A warning, though: No one likes a scolder or a nag, even if you mean well (I apologize to my work friends who have taught me this lesson). But try leading by example, or pointing your friends to this blog or others like it so they can decide for themselves or at least start asking questions about the way we live and why so many products on our shelves and in our houses are not good for us or the planet.
1. Recycle. This seems obvious, but if you don’t have curbside recycling (like I don’t) or if you live in an apartment, it takes much more effort to do. If you get some dedicated bins, it might help you start thinking about where your trash is going…to a landfill? or to a place that it can be used again? If we are talking about aluminum, you can get money back. If you take that money to buy some replacement earth-friendly products, it technically pays for itself. Glass is one product that is not only the safest to consume products from, it is one of the most efficiently recycled. Texas doesn’t have a program anymore to pay bottle “deposit” returns, but some states pay 5 – 10 cents per bottle recycled…you could really clean up, literally (pun intended).
2. Only buy plastic products with 1, 2, or 5 recyling numbers on them. These plastics are least likely to leach chemicals into your food and they are also the most often recyled products. Still, do not heat up anything in plastic, but you can use it for cold storage and transportation (like refilling a water bottle to use again). Better yet, try buying some glass storage containers for your food/drink.
3. Filter your water. This can be as easy as buying a Brita pitcher or putting a filter directly on your tap and/or shower head. There are a lot of chemicals used to treat municipal drinking water, and while this is obviously a good thing to keep us from catching diseases, we really don’t need (or want) to be putting these chemicals into our body on a daily basis. A filter can cut down on heavy metals that may leach from pipes, as well. It also achieves the simple result of making your water taste/smell better so that maybe you’ll drink more of it instead of buying bottles of water that have to be recycled or something like soda or sweet drinks we don’t really need. And if you make tea/coffee/soup with this filtered water, I promise it will all taste (and be) so much better.
4. Change one or two of your products. So, some of my friends have gone into a panicky “I CAN’T GIVE THIS UP” reaction to some of the products I’ve outed as not so good for us. So, if you love your shampoo, by all means, please keep using your shampoo. But maybe try a different body wash (or lotion or perfume) that is free of negative chemicals. You don’t have to go through a big purge like I did, but just try a few different things. If you like them, yay! Keep using them! If you don’t, keep trying! I promise you will find things you like. If you HAVE to wear your signature perfume, and you think it has phthalates in it, just compensate by trying to use other phthalate-free products. Remember that (especially with hair and skin products) your body is going to have to adjust to new products. Give it a good college try for two weeks. If it just isn’t working for you, please go back to the tried and true. You can always be green in other ways 😉
5. Turn off and un-plug. How many electronics do you leave plugged in all the time that you do not use on a daily basis? Your toaster? Your blender? A stereo with lots of components? Your hairdryer? Your phone charger? Now, obviously, we leave some things plugged in because we don’t want to crawl back behind a big piece of furniture to unplug them. Why care about unplugging stuff? Even if you aren’t actively using it, a plugged in appliance draws electricity that is often referred to as “standby” or “vampire” electicity use. If you’ve had to live through “rolling blackouts” because the demand for energy surpassed that of the electrical grid, this is one of the reasons to unplug. But what is worse, most of us get power from combustion-based power plants that use coal or natural gas. Both of these types of combustion produce green-house gasses, but also take a significant toll on the environment to get and transport. So, unplug appliances and your cell phone chargers when you aren’t using them. For things like stereos, think about getting a “smart” power strip that shuts down unused electronics via its own monitoring sensors. This will also cut down on your electricity bill.
6. Buy organic. Buy local. Eating organic food eliminates a large number of toxins from pesticides, antibiotics, and hormones that we don’t need or want in our bodies. Most grocery stores have organic options these days, but they tend to cost significantly more than non-organic varieties of the same product (and sometimes look uglier). Don’t worry about the little blemishes or lack of shine on some of your fruits and vegetables…this means they haven’t been artificially dyed or coated with things to keep them artificially perfect. A spot won’t hurt you. You can often find organic products at local farmers markets for better prices and you (usually) also get local products there. Local products reduce the impact of transportation and ensure that things are much fresher, and therefore much better for you. Again, you don’t have to go whole hog all at once, just make changes as you can.
7. Change your lightbulbs. I know it’s a pain to go through the house changing out those old incandescent lightbulbs, but I promise it is worth the money and energy savings to get compact fluorescent bulbs or similar new, energy-efficient bulbs. Not only do they save significant energy in consumption, but they are cooler (making your AC work more efficiently) and last much longer. I have some that I think are 5-years old already and work just like the day I bought them. Not like those annoying incandescents that seem to burn out every six months.
8. Compost, if you can. For apartment dwellers, this is a little harder, but not really. Compost is basically throwing out your plant-based food scraps and yard cuttings/leaves into a dedicated location that will allow it to naturally break down into mulch. If you live in an apartment, you can get a compost bucket, and either find a “natural setting” to dump it, or think about getting together with some neighbors to ask the apartment complex to designate a spot for a compost pile. Avoid putting meat and droppings from dogs/cats in your compost pile, but egg shells are okay. I have a big flower pot next to my back door that I dump this stuff into…I think it is 50% coffee grounds, and with natural filter paper, it all breaks down into stuff that is good for your flowerbeds. This is nature’s recycling, and obviously it keeps this stuff out of the landfills.
9. Be old-fashioned. Now this one is broad in its potential, but I feel like half of the “improvements” we’ve come up with in our lives are not improvements but wasteful. My grandmother (who was my babysitter when I was a child) grew up in the Great Depression,and she was the mother of 6. She did not waste a thing. She cooked in uncoated pans, made coffee in a percolator, and saved and ate all the left-overs until they were gone. There were only paper bags from the grocery store when I was a kid, and these became trash bags. She used rags to clean the kitchen and bathroom, not papertowels or other one-use throw-aways. She hung clothes and sheets out on a clothesline to dry when she could. She patched and mended clothes when they got a little worn, and when they were worn beyond use or fashion, she cut them into scraps for other things like quilts or altered them into something else. It doesn’t take a lot of ingenuity, it just takes thinking, “how did we do this before?” What am I wasting? You’ll also find yourself saving money.
10. Start asking why. If you are as befuddled about some of our products as I am, start contacting the customer service departments of these companies via e-mail or toll free phone numbers and ask why products aren’t recycleable (like K-cups), if their products contain BPA and/or phthalates and why, if they do. Ask about other toxic ingredients. Ask about their sustainability practices and what they are doing to protect the environment. If enough people start asking, they WILL listen. Especially if you stop using toxic products. Companies will feel it in their finances, which is really the best way to communicate to a big company. I can’t do it alone, but if everyone starts asking, more people will know and eventually changes will begin.
I don’t want to preach to anyone, but if we want this planet to last for future generations, we have to start taking care of it. And if we look at how the chemicals are impacting us, you can imagine what is happening to other creatures on this planet that have no choice in the matter. It doesn’t have to be a complete lifestyle overhaul (but it can be, if you want to)–little changes do add up. Just start. You’ll be happy that you did.