I recently toured a local recycling plant. Massive machines were feeding voluminous conveyers. Military grade technology was dividing materials according to their molecular structure. Helmeted, uniformed employees worked intently to compensate for the machines’ few shortcomings. I was impressed. I thought to myself, “Hey, this is the real deal. Recycling is more than just a tip-of-the-hat to the greeny-greens. It’s a living breathing component of the industrial machine, turning trash into real stuff. Awesome.”
As I was leaving the complex I was feeling pretty good about things. I almost made it out the door when I noticed the heap. A good five to 10 tons (maybe more) of books were lying there. Not old worn-out books, but those that were brand new and unread. “Oh, what’s going on here?” I thought. “Was there some mistake in production?” No, no mistake, this is just how they do business, I was told. They print more than they need, then when sales dip they pull them and ship them here.
This sparked quite a lively debate among our team. Large amounts of fuel and resources were poured into those pages, and there is no way to get out what was put in. Recycling is good and all, but something seems amiss.
Then that clever little alliteration – reduce, reuse, recycle – popped into my head. This seemed like a situation where reduce or reuse would definitely be better options. Various schemes and ideas were floated as to how less books could have been printed or they could be shipped overseas, so on and so forth. But, at the end of the day we all know what’s going on. This current system is making money.
Over time, recycling has risen above its sister concepts of reduce and reuse. It is the most talked about and promoted of the three, but it’s actually the least effective in achieving the ultimate goal of creating a more sustainable world. In terms of consuming resources, reusing something you already have or not using something at all is far less of a drain on the environment than buying a product made of recycled material. Thus, there is reason for the order of the mantra – eliminating consumption should be the solution of first resort.
But money talks and recycling actually fits in pretty well with our consumer-focused economy. Honda is not going to make a lot of cash by telling someone that continuing to drive their 2008 Honda Civic is better for the environment than purchasing a new hybrid. And we much prefer the convenience and consolation of sticking our plastic water and soda bottles in the recycling bin over eliminating them to begin with.
So, how do we fix this?
One option would be to convince corporations to become selflessly philanthropic, disregard their bottom lines, bulldoze their industrial complexes and plant sunflowers. Another perhaps more viable option would be to double down with some creative thinking on ways to monetize reuse and reduce.
This is not a revolutionary idea. There are a variety of products making a name for themselves in this arena. Brita makes money by producing a product that helps you reduce the need for bottled water. Starbucks encourages patrons to purchase reusable mugs and provides a discount for using them in their stores. But there’s still a lot of room for growth in this area.
It’s time for some creative, revolutionary thinking. Can a company who makes whole grain foods advertise that they reduce food waste (fewer lost nutrients in production, less goods consumed)? Can an auto service chain increase business by promoting the car you’re driving as the most efficient one you can own? If these ideas appear to be half-baked, they are – I just thought of them. But I am convinced that if anybody wants their company to really make a difference, they will start devoting more brain power to monetizing reuse and reduce and less time recycling old ideas.