Growing up I was ingrained with the message of “Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle”. At a young age this made me believe that recycling was the magical solution to solving environmental waste issues. In my young mind, once you placed that glass bottle or cardboard box in the recycling bin it was somehow transformed into a new product.
Now 10 years later after I’ve taken many environmental science classes, gained a much broader view on the environmental issues that our world face, and as I plan to major in environmental studies next year, I have learned that my younger view on recycling was extremely naive.
Unfortunately, when you toss an empty glass tomato sauce in your recycling bin it is not magically transformed back into a new glass jar. There are actually quite a few steps that are involved in the process of recycling materials. The recycling process required the materials to be collected, transported to a facility, sorted, and cleaned. All of these steps require fossil fuels, water, and energy, which creates pollution.
However, in the grand scheme of things, the use of additional natural resources is an appropriate tradeoff for redirecting a percentage of materials from landfills. Recycling is still more environmentally friendly than the long series of processes and materials that would go into creating an entirely new product. In addition to conserving the use of new raw materials and avoiding the greenhouse gasses or toxins that are released from incineration or into the watershed from trash in landfills.
If you were handed a used and empty plastic bottle, where would you first think to put it? For many items, many of which are packaging materials, such as bottles, boxes, and bags, our first thought is just to recycle. Convenience is often a leading factor in the choices we make, and recycling is one of the choices that we make every day.
The phrase “Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle” has become the main message of the environmental movement. But we tend to ignore the first two words: Reduce and Recycle. Even better than recycling is first being conscious of what products you are purchasing and the amount of waste they contain reduced waste in both the packaging and the product itself.
For the second word in this phase, your creativity comes into play when you open the possibilities of how trash can be used again. Reusing materials yourself is a much more environmentally friendly approach because it removes the use of natural resources to transport and sanitize. One of my favorite childhood memories is when my mom taught me how to harvest and plant marigold seeds in yogurt cups that we repurposed as plant pots on Earth Day.
So ultimately, yes recycling is a wonderful step in the right direction for the future of recycling of packaging and materials. However, there are so many steps we can take before recycling an item and no reason why we need to stop at recycling.
Questions such as “Is recycling enough?” are some of many questions that have fueled my interest to learn more about the field of environmental studies and desire to help with the future of the environment. The environment around us holds so many possibilities for our future, but first we need to preserve it.
Essay by: Sarah Daley
High School: School of Environmental Studies College: St. Olaf College