Recycling is good but reduction is better

While recycling remains important, it is often the first of the three Rs that is forgotten about – reduction.

Cassie Hearn

Entering the inner-city grocery store on a Tuesday afternoon, I am surprised to find the store bustling with other shoppers. Calgarians meander around, trying to scoop out the freshest bunch of kale and crispest apples. I do my best to select the juiciest fruits and best-smelling bread before heading to the checkout, where I package my items into reusable bags while the cashier scans away. 

The full beep of the scanner fills my ears as I contemplate the notion of reusable bags. These items have been a constant in my everyday life for as long as I can remember. I no longer have to consciously think about bringing them with me when I leave my tiny, inner-city apartment – I just simply do. 

How did it get this way? Why is it important to me? 

Tim Taylor, a professor at Mount Royal University, said this behaviour is a practice of reduction, the first step of recycling. 

However, reduction is often overshadowed by recycling, Taylor said. 

“We’ve done such a good job of thinking about recycling that it stopped us from thinking about reduction,” he said. “Recycling is just one big step. If you stop at that step, you miss the other steps.” 

Consuming fewer products can have a bigger impact on the planet than recycling, according to Taylor, who explained how recycled plastics are continually repurposed into lower-grade plastics until the plastic can no longer be used. 

Agreeing with Taylor, Grace Wark, a green workplace specialist for Green Calgary, said reducing helps make an impact on an individual level. However, if more people participated in reduction, the impact would be more widespread. 

“Ideally, the low-hanging fruit of the plastics world [is] to start those first steps towards reducing our plastic waste, finding what are those opportunities to eliminate them and also putting federal and municipal laws and supports in place to help transition,” she said. 

Unlike waste or recycling, where an item is tossed into a bin and forgotten about, reduction takes active forward thinking. Throwing garbage or recycling away costs consumers nothing and once the item is tossed, it is no longer thought about, according to Taylor. 

To help encourage reduction, Taylor recommended a disposal fee on simple plastic products, like coffee lids, a practice adopted by some European countries. 

To help tackle the amount of space being taken up in landfills, household items that can not be recycled, like clothing, can be donated and repurposed. PHOTO CREDIT: Cassie Hearn.

Taylor further suggested considering the items we bring into our homes. The first step is considering if a product is truly needed. The next step is researching higher-quality products that are made out of better materials and will last longer. Although these products tend to be more expensive, Taylor said they are also more sustainable and reliable. 

“Take the test and say, ‘Do I need it?’ If I do need it, what is my best choice for life?” Taylor asked. 

However, this is not an easy mindset to adopt. 

“Our whole culture, it’s like, ‘I’m stressed out, I’m going to go buy myself a little bit of self-indulgence,’” Taylor said. “How do you get to think about that question, ‘Do I need this?’” 

Although we live in a consumerist culture, according to Taylor, he believes switching the narrative to celebrate minimalism might help encourage thinking of reduction. 

“We give ourselves the gold star for recycling. How do we give ourselves a star for not buying something?” he asked.

“We give ourselves the gold star for recycling. How do we give ourselves a star for not buying something?”

Tim Taylow

When buying something, it also helps to consider landfill space. If a product can not be reused or recycled, its final resting place is without a doubt a landfill, but these piles have limited amounts of space. 

“The more materials we send to our landfills, the more space we use up [and] space is a super precious commodity here in our cities,” Wark said. 

In ever-expanding Calgary, there are only so many places within the city for landfills to exist, meaning in the future, homes may be built neighbouring these mountainous piles of waste. 

“If you believe that there’s unlimited landfill space, you don’t care. It’s having that realization that, well, [there isn’t unlimited landfill space],” Taylor explained.

Landfills not only take up space cities could use for parks and roads, but they also release harmful carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere, Wark said. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, landfills produce a gas that contains 50 per cent methane and 50 per cent carbon dioxide. A greenhouse gas, methane and carbon dioxide trap heat in the atmosphere, which results in global warming. 

Composting food waste can help decrease harmful green gashouse gas emissions. PHOTO CREDIT: Cassie Hearn.

Reducing how much we consume can contribute to lower greenhouse gas emissions by reducing the amount of waste that is produced. 

To begin reduction, Taylor recommends taking an inventory of what is being thrown into household waste, and seeing which items could have been replaced by reusable products. A plastic bag from the grocery store can be replaced with a reusable one, for example. 

… with a reusable water bottle.

Replace a plastic, single-use water bottle …

… a reusable cloth bag.

Replace a plastic bag with …

… a reusable metal straw.

Replace a plastic straw with …

“I think [what] is really hard for everyone is remembering to bring your grocery bag to the store. It’s such a tough one,” Wark said, recommending Calgarians leave a reusable bag by the door as a physical reminder each time you take a trip to the store. 

Although remembering to bring reusable bags can pose a challenge, Taylor promised that after a few times, it will become a practice that no longer requires any extra brain power. These habit-building practices will quickly become integrated into everyday life. 

“Thinking about reduction takes more grey matter, but if you can reduce something, that should be your feel-good moment,” Taylor said. 

While I carry my reusable grocery bags to my car, I take a second to consider how I can focus on reduction. I mostly use reusable products, most recently switching to washable cotton swaps and chewable toothpaste to avoid wasting containers. But I also know there is more I can be doing to reduce my impact on the environment.

Although my car is not an electric vehicle and I purchase candles in containers that can not be recycled, I know every small step I take toward a greener future benefits all Calgarians, not just myself. Taking the first steps toward reduction is better than not taking any steps at all. 

“We don’t need a few people doing sustainability perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly,” Wark said.