The reality is that we live in a consumerist society, so it's almost instinctual to change our wasteful habits by buying something green instead, and making sure we recycle the packages and containers we buy when we can't find something greener. Though of course all of that does make a difference; those cloth grocery bags are replacing the plastic ones that clog our oceans and landfills, and recycling your old containers means they can be turned into something else instead of piling up in a dump. But it is still worth considering since recycling still uses energy and creates pollution, less energy and pollution but still-not nothing. Further, according to a report from National Geographic, the vast majority of plastic doesn't get recycled at all: only a measly nine percent of the 8.3 billion metric tons of all plastic ever made. None of that is to say that recycling isn't worthwhile. It absolutely is. Just that it maybe be worth considering if recycling isn't the panacea we'd hoped for, and that perhaps there are better ways to approach the plastic problem.
Related: What We Learned Going One Week (Almost) Plastic-Free
Reusing is a good way to stop waste before it starts and there is now an entire green industry dedicated to these products. Beyond bags and bottles, we can buy reusable food wrappers, straws, K-cup coffee filters, produce bags, makeup remover cloths, menstrual pads, q-tips, and even toothbrushes with bristles that be replaced and a handle that be reused many times over. Some of these are great options to replace single-use items. If you need a new toothbrush anyway, why not get a more eco-friendly option? Switching from plastic sandwich wrappers to beeswax ones for your kid's lunch is a no-brainer. But is tossing all of my plastic containers and replacing them with more eco-friendly ones a good environmental choice? After all, that's now plastic that may very well not end up getting recycled at all, and the manufacturing and shipping of any product, even a green one, still uses energy and creates waste. Trust me, I sigh wistfully at the beautiful, sustainably made dish wear I'd love to have instead of the plastic bowls, cups, and plates I do now. I dream of an open shelf lined with glass jars full of bulk grains and cereals and snacks. But I can't justify throwing away a whole bunch of plastic containers to make that happen.
Related: 9 Ways to Reduce Your Baby's Carbon Footprint
That brings up to our final R: Reduce, or, simply use less. Yes, it seems rather obvious, because it is, but I have to say that stopping to ask myself if I really need something or really need to go somewhere has been something of a revelation. In a society that tells us to constantly buy more, do more, that we should constantly be updating our wardrobes, remodeling our houses, and upgrading our devices to the newest and greatest, just using less really does feel like a revolutionary idea. And it's easy, too. Use less stuff. Shop less often. Take fewer trips. Make do with what you have. Consider if something is really necessary, and if it is, is there another way of getting it instead of going out and buying something new?
The three R's are still the gold standard for making an impact on environmental waste. If we just pay attention to their order, that's even truer: Reduce first, then reuse, and recycle last. As for me, as my old plastic kitchen items wear out (or, more likely, end up as slime containers), I'm slowly replacing them with up-cycled glass jars. And I've got my eye on some lovely bamboo dish wear. Someday… Or not, and that's okay. For more tips on easy ways to use less, go to Zero Waste Home.