Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

This piece is adapted from a speech I gave as part of a Speechcraft course earlier this year – Speechcraft is a crash course in public speaking run by a Toastmasters Club, and is a great way to build confidence and approve speech-making abilities!

Reduce, reuse, recycle — it’s a well-known saying, but how often do you practice it in your daily life? The reality is that we live in a consumerist society, where we are encouraged to buy on impulse, to own the latest trendy items, and to throw things away when they stop working or go out of fashion. However, this is a finite world and it contains finite resources, including water, metals, and fossil fuels. Even the amount of food that can be grown is limited by the space and nutrients available on Earth.

Future generations will need access to all the same resources that we use if they want to maintain a similar lifestyle, but many of these resources are being used up at ever-increasing rates and are not being replenished. For example, extracting metals and fossil fuels from the ground is currently becoming increasingly difficult and more expensive, as all the most accessible and abundant sources have already been exhausted. Many resources are already in high demand, and consumption rates are dramatically increasing as the world becomes more densely populated and more affluent. In fact, the richest 20% of the world consumes 80% of the world’s resources!

We all have the dubious privilege of being part of that richest 20%, and not only do we consume new resources like mad, but we also discard old resources thoughtlessly. In our culture, when something breaks, or if it is old or no longer considered useful, we just throw it “away”. But where is away? There is no magical land where all our waste can go and not bother anyone — it sits in landfills, leaching toxic chemicals into the ground and producing the potent greenhouse gas, methane. More importantly in this finite world, all that waste is a resource. In the near future it will actually be economically viable to mine rubbish dumps for gold and other rare metals from all the electronics we discard.

Clearly something needs to change if we want to ensure the availability of resources for future generations. Our society needs to undergo a major shift in the way we manage resources, and there are three key changes we can all make in our personal lives — reduce our consumption; be responsible consumers; and minimise our waste.

The first thing we can do is reduce consumption. This is really simple: Don’t buy things you don’t need! Many people feel compelled to buy a trendy new smartphone, even if all they are going to use it for is texting and calling. Well my phone can do that, and it’s over six years old.

We also purchase many things that we’re only going to use occasionally. If you need a particular item for a short project, you could try borrowing it from a friend, family member, neighbour, or online stranger. Not only does reducing our impulse buys and unnecessary spending lessen our consumption, but it also saves us money.

We also need to reconsider what are the most important applications for raw materials. Roughly half the global gold supply is used to make jewellery, but there is increasing demand for gold in the electronics industry. Jewellery has strong cultural associations, and it can be very pretty, but perhaps we should consider reserving more of the gold supply for the electronics that we love and rely on so much, and for other important technological and medical applications.

The second thing we can do is to reduce the negative impacts of our purchases by paying attention to the materials that products and packaging are made from. The best products are reusable, are made of renewable materials, or can be easily recycled when they reach the end of their useful lives. We should also try to purchase items that are made of recycled materials, as this reduces the use of virgin materials and helps to create demand for recycling. It is now possible to buy many paper products in recycled form, including office paper, notebooks, diaries, toilet paper, facial tissues, serviettes, paper towels… and the list goes on! Likewise, buying items second hand saves them from going to landfill, and also saves us money.

We can apply the same criteria to the packaging that comes with the products we buy — renewable, recycleable or recycled materials are all good. Even better, we can try to purchase products with minimal packaging or no packaging at all.

The third thing we can all do is reuse and recycle as much as possible. If something still works or contains parts that can be salvaged then don’t throw it in the rubbish — if you’re not going to use it again then sell or donate it to someone who will. This is now easy to do using websites like TradeMe for selling, and FreeCycle for donating.

For items that can’t be reused, the component materials are often recyclable. Metals and glass can be recycled over and over, and most plastics and paper are also recyclable. Unfortunately, just 7% of all plastic produced is currently recycled — the rest ends up in landfill or worse, littering the oceans. Many plant-based products, including food waste, paper and PLA plastic can also be indirectly recycled by composting.

In summary, reducing waste is primarily about learning to make sustainable choices when purchasing new products and disposing of old ones. The three things that all of you can do are:

  1. Ask yourself if you really need something before you buy it.
  2. Be a responsible consumer by choosing products that contain renewable, reused, recycled or recyclable materials.
  3. Make a conscious effort to reuse items, give unwanted items to others who may need them, and put all your paper, plastic, glass and metal packaging in the recycling bin.

Creating a better future for our children really is as simple as Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.

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