“And I….. never let the water run!” The earworm refrain echoed through my head for years as I made sure to turn off the tap while I brushed my teeth.
My school’s annual Earth Day festivities were filled with cheesy songs about the evils of using too much water or not cutting up our six-pack rings. They successfully indoctrinated me into treehugger culture, in which I felt immensely powerful for recycling my soda bottle and horribly guilty when there was no recycling bin in sight.
As I aged, I saw plenty of people taking steps to reduce their footprint. Nowadays, you’d be hard-pressed to find any park, campus, or apartment complex that doesn’t have recycling bins, and reusable shopping bags are so popular that they’ve become a style item. Clever companies seized upon the chance to appeal to “green” customers with recycled-material products of all types. Even if these companies are guilty of greenwashing, the fact remains that consumer demand for green products persists.
We all want to feel like we’re doing our part, because many of us were raised hearing propaganda that our small actions would cumulatively save the planet.
We were lied to.
For years, I felt extremely guilty when I didn’t, or wasn’t able to, recycle. I was the type who would carry a plastic bottle with me for miles until I reached a recycling container, and I regularly rescued soda cans from trash bins. I was part of a student group who campaigned our college administration to set up recycling on campus. They did, but we later learned that they instructed custodial staff to simply dump the recyclables along with the regular garbage.
And yet, our efforts ultimately didn’t matter much. Even when recycling does get sent for processing, it might still end up in a landfill. Recycling, like anything in a capitalist world, has a market, and the buyers can only buy so much. Once the United States’ largest buyer, China, refused to import more, we were met with tons of recyclable waste that had nowhere to go.
Recycling isn’t always profitable, and as more people recycle, it becomes challenging to find a market for all that waste. Plus, recycling is a bit of an energy hog, once you factor in the fuel for transport, power running to the equipment, and so on.
That said, recycling does save energy — in certain situations. A good rule of thumb is to always recycle (clean) aluminum, paper, and plastic bottles. Avoid trying to recycle other plastic things (e.g. toys, hangers), and repurpose glass and textiles whenever possible. And of course, the less trash you produce, the better.
And yet, the real issue isn’t household waste. It’s industrial waste, on which we really don’t have good numbers.
Recently, I was scolded for purchasing a new set of BPA-free food storage containers. “You should repurpose glass jars to store your food,” the person said. The guilt wrought by my childhood’s tree-hugging propaganda rose up, but then I quickly realized a problem with that advice: I had no glass jars to repurpose. I’d have to buy them. And then we were back to square one: I would be showing demand for a product that requires natural resources to produce, pack, and ship.
While plastic is a problem, it’s the single-use plastics that we should be worried about. In this rare situation, we can make a difference. Plastic bags are generally not accepted by most municipal recycling programs, and things like plastic wrap, straws, and drink lids are usually not recycled, period. This is where the Reduce part of the three R’s comes into play: If you don’t need a straw or bag, don’t use one. Also, it’s much preferable to buy plastic food storage containers (or yes, repurpose existing containers) that can be reused than to buy plastic wrap or plastic baggies that are used once and thrown away.
Ultimately, though, personal responsibility cannot save the planet. Even if it’s the morally right thing to do, we as individuals simply don’t have the power to do so. Even if everyone turns off the tap while they brush their teeth, they’re not going to undo the massive amounts of water needed for industry. It takes 1,799 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef and 2,641 gallons for 2 pounds of cotton.
The sad truth is that we cannot sustain our current way of life. Our industries need to innovate ways to decrease their footprints. In the meanwhile, the burden falls on us little folk, and there’s not much we can do besides reduce what we consume. Just like with plastic, we must think twice about what we bring into our lives. Should I have purchased those plastic storage containers? Maybe not. But it makes far more of an impact that I do not eat beef and I buy clothes secondhand.
Still, my tree-hugger ways seem pointless. I cannot stop the frantic march of industry, and neither can you. But perhaps together, we can both reduce our demand and demand that industries reduce. That’s a start, at least.
Enjoyed this article? Want exclusive writing advice and secret content? Join my mailing list.