The 3 R'sbywife2hotblk©
In celebration of Earth Day, I want to look at some simple things that all families can do each and every day that would make a major difference to slowing if not reversing Climate Change. I want to focus on what has been coined as the new 3 R's: reduce, re-use, recycle. But before we look at the specifics, I want to begin with the basics: why your family should join mine in these efforts.
Family first. Since we are our children's first and best teachers, I think that the time we invest in teaching them about all things environmental is an excellent investment in our futures and theirs. It is never too early to begin either. At three, my daughter knows the difference between the bin and the recycle bag (sometimes better than my eighteen year old).
Saving money. In fact, in the UK most councils offer free recycling facilities to all residents, which means that recycling costs us nothing. There are examples too of how recycling can actually save you money though, such as my wormary, which produces organic liquid fertiliser and compost or reducing your energy consumption by turning down the thermostat. But in the USA recycling too can actually pay money. Although not as easy for many American families to place bags or special bins on the stoop (although some forward thinking counties and cities are offering curb-side recycling as in the UK), the profit from this activity can be used to fund extras or meet essential obligations. Before I left Los Angeles in 2006, there were increasingly mini-recycling centres often in the parking lots of grocery stores. Families could take their paper, metal and plastic products and turn them into paper...paper money that is. In some ways this is more incentive to recycle than the UK system. What if your family could pay for its holiday through recycling? Perhaps even clean up your street? I know that my three years old loves helping me to pick up trash in her park. Could your family do something similar?
Environmentally friendly. Like I said, the 3 R's are among the basics of environmentally friendly. It is one of the easiest things that we can all do to save this special planet for our children and grand-children. Alright, we have all heard the pundits talk about how recycling does not make a difference. So to clear up a few of those myths:
• Enough energy is saved by recycling one aluminum can to run a TV set for three hours.
• A steel mill which uses recycled scrap reduces related water pollution, air pollution, and mining wastes by at least 70 percent.
• Creating one ton of recycled paper uses only about 60 percent of the energy needed to make a ton of virgin paper.
• Seventeen trees are saved for each ton of recycled newspaper.
• Recycling steel and tin cans saves 74 percent of the energy necessary to produce them.
• Today most bottles and jars contain at least 25 percent recycled glass.
Healthy living. It may not be immediately obvious how the 3 R's can make you healthier, but I have a couple of examples:
• Reduce your carbon footprint by walking to school, the store and anywhere else you can...also increases the amount of exercise you are getting. Walking is actually one of the best exercises there is.
• Eating fresher often means that there is less packaging as frozen, tinned and jarred products, which produce more waste also, are likely to have more added salts, sugars and preservatives.
• Reducing the carbon miles of your food by growing your own fruits and vegetables also allows you to grow them organically as well as having the benefit of reducing your stress through the pleasurable hobby of gardening.
Now that we have talked about the importance of the 3R's of reduce, re-use and recycle, let's look at each of them in turn.
Reduce...the Holy Grail
The hard truth is that we all need to reduce. Reduce the amount of money we spend. Reduce the amount of food we eat...and our waistlines. And reduce the amount of stuff we throw away. In fact when we look at the 3 R's of reduce, reuse, recycle, they are actually in that order for a reason. It is a hierarchy for a reason and reduce is the Holy Grail. Put in its simplest terms reduce means that we use less of the earth's resources and in any environmental scheme should be our first priority. That said, it is also the hardest to accomplish.
When I thought about all the things we do to be greener, the number of examples of reducing stumped me. I suppose the most obvious example of our efforts to reduce was the decision some months ago, not to purchase an automobile. My husband has the use of a company van, but even that is rarely used. The difficulty comes when we want to go anywhere as a family. The work van has only one bucket seat in the front that fits three people. Obviously this presents difficulties. Even on our Saturday shopping trips with my mother-in-law, I end up sitting in the back of van; a solution that is both dangerous and illegal for the children. About a year ago, when I was working full-time, we were seriously considering buying a vehicle. But in the end, we thought the expense was too much when you consider not just payments, but insurance, road tax, maintenance and gas. Instead, we signed up for StreetCar; a car rental scheme that you pay a monthly fee to join and an hourly or daily rate only when you need to use a car or van. Looking back, that was one of the best decisions we have made both for the environment and family finances.
The other obvious example I found of reduction was our decision a year ago to switch to bags for life. We now have a stack of them beneath our kitchen sink and faithfully use them for our Saturday shops. But I do admit to occasionally forgetting them when just running out to grab something quickly. When this happens though, we make certain to re-use (we'll talk more about that tomorrow) any plastic bags we get for outings or for small bin liners. Did you know that in the UK alone 100,000 TONNES of plastic bags are thrown away each year; that is the equivalent of 70,000 cars? So if there is one thing, I can encourage you to do, it is purchase bags for life. My store sells the sturdy plastic ones for about forty pence, the jute ones are about a pound, and the pretty cloth ones are about three pounds with a portion of the proceeds going to charity. Or it is very simple to make your own if you sew.
Speaking of which, sewing and mending our clothes is another excellent way of reducing. My boys from my husband to my sons are always wearing holes in their jeans on the inside thighs. Before the economic downturn, I admit we were likely to just toss them out and purchase new ones. But since I have not been working, we have instead taken them to the drycleaners and had them patched. The cost of the repairs is less than the cost of purchasing new (although I am committed to mending them myself from now on...a further savings). And we have reduced in a very small way the demand for jeans.
Of course, as I sit at my desk in my bedroom I am witnessing another reduction...the daylight streaming in through the open curtains. One of the first things I do each morning is open the curtains and the blinds. By using natural light when and where possible, we are reducing the amount of electricity that we consume and that the power grids must generate. We are also of course saving money on our bills. My husband is a genius at this; going around and turning off and unplugging everything he can each night before bed. I admit though that being American this whole switch on the plug thing still gets me and I often forget to do that, but I am improving. Of course, another example was turning down our thermostat during the winter and wearing heavier layers of clothes instead. In fact, I can think of only a couple of days this winter when we turned our heat on before night fall at all.
These are just a few ideas of ways that our family is reducing. There are many other things that we and you can do to cut back on the things we consume and help save our earth's precious resources.
Queen of the Re-use
If I give my family questionable marks on its efforts to reduce, I admit that when it comes to re-using I am the Queen. When I was a teenager there was a song, 'I was country, when country wasn't cool.' Well, I was re-using back when it was called hand-me-downs and everyone looked down on you for wearing them. Honestly though, I can remember being about five and having a distant second cousin visit. She had brought a bag of clothes that had been her daughter's, who had died. That may sound morbid, but I think my smiles and thanks for the 'new' clothes may have helped to let go of not only the clothes, but a bit of her grief as well.
If you were to look in my three year old's playroom, most of the toys you would see have been given to her second-hand from friends, purchased at charity shops or even salvaged from the bin...including her wonderful Little Tikes kitchen centre. But my re-using does not stop there, if you open my kitchen cabinets you will see stacks of old containers that once held spread, cottage cheese or something else. With the exception of the air-tight sealing bowls that my husband uses to transport his food to work each day, we do not purchase or use Tupperware, Serv-rite or any other type of plastic wear. And those plastic containers that once housed my produce such as strawberries, blueberries and peaches are now being re-used as pots for my spring seedlings. I also have a cabinet full of sauce jars that I am looking for ideas on how best to re-use. I have already filled several with nuts, bolts, nails and the like. But even after getting organised myself, I just can't bring myself to throw these into the recycle bag when I know that they are perfectly re-usable as they are. I have even taken to re-using my daughter's Fruit Shoot bottles by refilling them with concentrate fruit and water. Of course, a tad of a warning on this one: do not freeze plastic bottles as it can cause a cancer causing chemical to leach into the drinks. So I always replace the bottles after a few uses just to be safe. But then they can go into the recycle bag.
Even dinner last night was re-used food; better known as left-overs. I think one of the most beautiful examples of re-using is the folk-art form of quilting. Not only can worn-out old clothes be turned into colourful quilts, but they can tell a story: our history. I have also heard of people braiding old cloth to make rugs as well. Last year at the Green Show, I bought my daughter the cutest little purse made from old plastic juice boxes by a women's cooperative in the developing world.
Thinking back to my own childhood and the used toys and clothes that I was blessed to enjoy, I am glad that it has become the 'cool' thing to re-use. Not only do these items still have good life left in them, but they remind us that we, ourselves, re-use life's lessons to improve our world. So next time before you toss that item into the bin or even the recycle bag, stop and ask yourself could it be re-used instead: perhaps that wine bottle would look nice on a table with a candle or a few flowers or could that old t-shirt be cut into squares and used instead of paper towels or how about making puppets with old and mismatched socks. The ideas are limitless...I hope you will share your favourites with me as well.
Recycling...What it really is
Recycling has become the catch all phrase often used in place of the 3 R's. But in its truest form recycling means taking one thing and changing it, usually chemically, into another. This is not to say that recycling is without value; it is certainly better than putting the items in the bin where they will end up in landfills and leach chemicals into our ground water. It is though to say that before you place anything in the recycle bag, first consider if you could reduce or re-use it, because everything that ends up in the recycling bag will have to be altered before it can be used again. Even then it is cleaner to produce goods from recyclables than from raw materials.
Here are just a few reasons to make certain that after you have reduced the amount of waste your create and re-used as many things as possible that your family puts as many things as possible into the recycling bins:
• Recycling one aluminum can saves enough energy to run a TV for three hours -- or the equivalent of a half a gallon of gasoline.
• Each ton (2000 pounds) of recycled paper can save 17 trees, 380 gallons of oil, three cubic yards of landfill space, 4000 kilowatts of energy, and 7000 gallons of water. This represents a 64% energy savings, a 58% water savings, and 60 pounds less of air pollution!
• The 17 trees saved (above) can absorb a total of 250 pounds of carbon dioxide from the air each year. Burning that same ton of paper would create 1500 pounds of carbon dioxide.
• Recycling plastic saves twice as much energy as burning it in an incinerator.
• The energy saved from recycling one glass bottle can run a 100-watt light bulb for four hours. It also causes 20% less air pollution and 50% less water pollution than when a new bottle is made from raw materials.
• A modern glass bottle would take 4000 years or more to decompose -- and even longer if it's in the landfill.
Today is the actually a great day to talk about recycling. Each Thursday the council sends around men to collect our recyclables. The council gives us re-usable sacks, which we can use to collect all paper, cardboard, tin cans, aluminum, glass bottles and jars and plastic bottles. Unfortunately, they do not offer recycling for other plastics. As I have been writing this article that has been one thing that I have been especially mindful of: how much plastic packaging manufacturers use that cannot be recycled and that it is estimated takes over 500 years to decompose in landfills.
But it is not just our plastics, glass, metals and paper that we recycle. Thanks to a wonderful programme through our council, last year we were able to purchase a subsidized wormary to recycle our food waste into compost and liquid fertilizer for growing my own food. Actually, even though we may think that food thrown into the bin will degrade relatively quickly in the landfills, the biggest problem is the amount of methane, a dangerous green house gas, which it produces in that time. Methane is twenty times more potent than carbon dioxide and a major contribute to climate change. While my wormery cannot accommodate meat products I put all peels and unused fruits and vegetables into it. I should soon be harvesting my first patch of compost...just in time for my summer garden.
So how does my family do on recycling? Not too bad honestly. This week we had two bags of recylables and will only have two half full 13 gallon bin bags of other rubbish. Actually hubby and I got into a minor disagreement over the trash last night. One of the first rules of the 3R's is to only throw out your garbage when the bag is full. In our case though, it had begun to smell. I am still looking for a solution...if anyone has ideas they would be greatly appreciated. But for a family of three adults and one pre-schooler two large bags of recycling and one full 13 gallon bin bag in a week is pretty good I think. I imagine that there are single people, who put more than one bag in the bin each week.
So How You Doing?
In the spirit of recycling, I thought I would use those famous words from Friends character Joey. As we have looked at the 3 R's, reduce, reuse, recycle, I have shared with you ideas that my family are using to cut our carbon footprint on this precious Earth that we call home. Reducing is always a challenge, because it goes in the face of our societal values of having more and doing more, but it is the highest form of recycling. Re-using is something that has been natural for me through out my life. It may be challenging at times to creatively transform old household items into new uses, but this has become one of the staples of our efforts to be more environmentally friendly...and save money. Recycling has become the catch phrase for the 3 R's, but is strictly speaking altering one thing into another. It is important that we recycle as much as we possibly can, because making consumables from recycled goods is always cheaper and better for the environment than making them from raw materials. But we should recognise too that recycling should only be used after we have reduced and re-used. For our children and their futures, we must use all the arsenal of tools embodied in the 3 R's: reducing wherever we can, re-using everything that we possibly can, and recycling every item that our councils and recycling centres will accept.
So what can you do better? Remember though this is not about being perfect, but the little things that we can realistically do and continue to do. The things that may seem so small that you don't think they will make a difference: things that if we all did would make a huge difference.