Rethinking ‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle’


Growing up as children, we were all told to “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.”

Collecting glass bottles, aluminum cans and plastic containers was easy to do and felt good. And since it was in line with this simple three-word chant, it seemed like we were doing the right thing. Unfortunately, this chant has not curbed the growing consumerism found in rich, Western countries.

One reason is that it equates a reduction in the consumption of products with recycling products. These are two very different actions. The easy-to-recognize ‘green triangles’ that are found at recycling facilities and on most products themselves further this inaccuracy.

We have become societies that rely on both to take care of our needs and any associated costs. We have removed ourselves from the debate.

A decision-making hierarchy is needed to change the shopping habits of consumers. Here’s one example of that idea:

  1. Reduce consumption of products.
  2. Reuse these products until they are unusable.
  3. Recycle once they become unusable.

To think about this, let’s look at the fashion industry.

Greenpeace provides an overview of the water depletion, pollution and waste that our fashion choices produce:

  • First, there’s water consumption. 2 billion pairs of jeans are produced every year, and a typical pair takes 7,000 litres of water to produce. For a t-shirt, it takes 2,700 litres of water to make just one– that’s the amount of water an average person drinks over the course of 900 days!
  • Secondly, there’s the dyeing process of which 1.7 million tonnes of various chemicals are used; not to mention the hazardous chemicals like PFCs that leave a permanent impact on our environment.
  • And what about the clothing that doesn’t make it to market? An estimated 400 billion square meters of textiles are produced annually, of which 60 billion square meters are left on the cutting room floor. Each year over 80 billion pieces of clothing are produced worldwide, and after its short lifespan, three out of four garments will end up in landfills or be incinerated. Only a quarter will be recycled.

According to Plenitude: The New Economics of True Wealth by Juliet B. Schor, Americans for instance, consume three times as much as their ancestors did fifty years ago, and they buy twice as many items of clothing as they did twenty years ago. In 1991, the average American bought 34 items of clothing each year. By 2007, they were buying 67 items every year. That’s a new piece of clothing every four to five days!

Thinking beyond “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” (Source)

Recycling torn textiles or donating clothes to secondhand retailers does nothing to address these fundamental environmental issues. Fast fashion and the garment industry also causes severe labour rights abuses, especially towards women.

Consumers, especially people who purchase with extreme frequency, need to evaluate the true costs of their purchases.

Let’s look at another example, one that is small is size but has a big impact: the plastic water bottle.

A hundred years ago, Leo Baekeland invented Bakelite, an inexpensive, nonflammable, versatile, and popular plastic, which marked the beginning of the modern plastics industry. In the podcast “How Oil Got Into Everything”, NPR reports how Baekeland’s process put oil into everything we use today: our sneakers, our clothes, and the computer or phone that you’re looking at right now.

It was a discovery that has had far-reaching, negative consequences in the decades that followed.


Plastic has been a tool for increased industrialization and progress, while also fueling climate change and environmental degradation. It’s been a blessing and a curse. Nothing illustrates this more than the plastic water bottle.

Americans buy an estimated half a billion plastic bottles of water every week. Even with widespread recycling, an estimated 2 million tons of plastic water bottles end up in landfills every year. To counter this, cities like San Francisco have introduced bans on the sale of single-use plastic water bottles on city-owned property. These political steps are useful but must follow a change in consumer perception and action.

Multi-national bottling corporations, like Pepsi and Coca-Cola, backed by lobbying groups, like the International Bottled Water Association, have been marketing bottled water as better than the incredible low-cost alternative: tap water. This is nothing but a sales pitch. In San Francisco, like most cities in North America, an estimated one third of bottled water is repackaged tap water.


The solution is to invest in a water bottle, filled with tap water. Cities and municipalities need to invest in clean drinking water with adequate water fountains.

You don’t have to recycle when you reduce your shopping habits.

3 thoughts on “Rethinking ‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle’

  1. I don’t follow “green” policies too much, so please forgive my ignorance: why is anyone concerned with “water depletion?” Isn’t water the most plentiful substance on the planet? Granted, converting salt water to something drinkable is expensive, but if we were running out or something, doing so would be worth the cost.

    1. Great question; thanks for asking. The lack of safe, usable water is an important problem for a number of reasons. Although salt water (far more plentiful than liquid freshwater) can be converted into drinkable water, as you note, very few nations can afford this technology. Instead, countries are already facing water shortages. Millions of people today do not have access to clean drinking water. In addition to drinking water, water is also used in irrigated agriculture. Without water, the global food supply will fall. This is what is already happening in places as different as California and Syria, which are both experiencing record droughts. The drought in Syria caused farmers to abandon their fields and head to the city, worsening the human cost of the current conflict. With rising temperatures and shifts in seasons due to climate change, these scenarios will become more extreme and affect everywhere. This is why it is so important to address all aspects of environmental degradation (from fossil fuels to clothing) caused by high consumption.

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