Reduction is the key to saving our planet

Reduce, reuse, recycle. We’ve heard those three words over and over again.

We’ve heard songs and rhymes to get it stuck in our heads, but are we really listening? This chant is supposed to reflect some behavior that contributes to environmentally “friendly” practices.

Recycle seems to be the main focus of many, and it has been one of mine. I hold on to my glass or plastic beverage bottle until I find a recycling bin. I don’t put paper or newspapers in the trash. I read the guidelines of what to recycle in residence hall trash rooms if they happen to be posted like they should be. I hear about drop-offs for electronics like cell phones, televisions and computers.

What I do not know is what really happens to that glass or plastic bottle once I dispose of it. I also wonder about other materials such as papers, newspapers and my old computer; where do they go? So much paper waste is generated on our campus and worldwide. Is everything really getting recycled and reused?

There are many factors that go into the recycling process, such as contamination of recyclable bins by food products or lack of an end market to actually reuse materials collected. I am always appalled when I see someone’s half-eaten lunch tossed amid bottles and cans. I really do not understand how that happens. Whether it is laziness or lack of a trash can, something needs to change.

There are two R’s that come before recycle that I feel are often neglected. Reducing waste by not purchasing new items is a huge factor in sustainable living and is the way to significantly make a difference. This word, reduce, is forgotten by many when happily buying a case of Poland Spring water. They think, I can do my part, I’ll just recycle these bottles!

This thought process can change when one understands the enormous quantity of recyclable materials that end up at recycling centers every day. I had the opportunity to visit and get a tour of the recycling center in Somerset County, and I was blown away.

There was a mountain of bottles, cans, detergent containers, milk bottles, cardboard and paper that filled the large warehouse-like room almost to the ceiling.

As I thought about how much stuff was piled in front of me, I became incredibly overwhelmed. It was if that mound would never, ever decrease. Unfortunately it seems like that is true. There are trucks that dump more and more recyclables every day, just adding to the growing number of aluminum, plastic, glass and paper. The staff that works in the recycling center has to sort through everything, as the end result is to separate every type of material and remove any trash or nonrecyclable items. They are doing all of us a great service, because recycling is better than those piles of bottles thrown in a landfill somewhere.

Much of the glass, plastic and aluminum is bought by companies throughout the United States to be hauled away for further treatment to make new products. What we should be worried about is what happens if there is no longer any market for those items. I have horrible images in my mind of warehouses filled to capacity with all the bottles we throw away every day.

I was startled to discover that the largest market for paper and electronic waste recycling is in China. However, the harsh reality of what actually happens to our waste is the biggest surprise.

In Guiyu, China, for example, piles of electronic waste are found in landfills and near water sources that people use to drink and bathe out of every day. Computer parts are broken and torn apart by hand to remove valuable metals such as gold, copper and lead. There are no child labor laws or women’s rights.

People are inhaling fumes and chemicals from burning televisions and computer monitors and they no longer can enjoy fresh, clean water. I wonder how this can be a sustainable process when “recycling” is done at the cost of the health and lives of others.

My point is that we have to consider options in our lives that reduce our waste instead of purchasing more and more items that need to be recycled. Why not buy a Brita filter and use a sturdy water bottle? Why not donate your old computer to a charity where a low-income family may benefit? Why not reuse paper and cut back on printing whenever possible?

I am a strong supporter of having options and we should not forget that they are there. There is a reason why reduce comes first: It is our best chance for a decrease in our waste stream and an improvement in the condition of our earth.