Reduce, Re-use Recycle — More Than Just a Catchy Jingle

Taking steps to reduce can have an impact on many areas of your life. Reduce the number of times you drive your car by combining trips, choosing to walk, car pooling or using public transportation and you will reduce air pollution, reduce wear and tear on your car and reduce the money coming out of your wallet.

Reducing trips in your car can also have global affect. According to the New American Dream Foundation (, motor vehicles are responsible for almost one quarter of the annual U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide, the primary global-warming gas. The U.S. transportation system emits more carbon dioxide than any other nation’s total economy, except that of China. [Note: U.S population is roughly 300,000 and China’s population is approximately 1,300,000, four times our size.] Seven of ten barrels of oil that the U.S. consumes is utilized for transportation. As we know, the growing need for oil increases the desire to drill in places like the Arctic Refuge and other environmentally sensitive areas.

Reducing the amount of items you buy reduces your impact on the environment. Many everyday items are shipped from around the world and may have been manufactured in a manner that is harmful to the people working in the factories and to the environment. Taking the time to find locally made items is worthwhile. It can be as simple as attending a craft show and buying handcrafted toys that will last a lifetime instead of a trip to a mega-chain to buy plastic items that may not survive the week. Have a favorite magazine? Consider donating a subscription to your local library. You can read it there and others will enjoy it also.

Reduce the amount of chemicals you use in your home. Consider the alarming fact that many items you use to clean your home with have to be disposed of at a hazardous waste collection site. Many simple cleaners can replace more toxic substances. You can make your own cleaners with baking soda, borax and vinegar. There are also a growing number of commercially available products. Citrus-based cleaners are safer to use than traditional petroleum based solvents. They are non-flammable and biodegradable. You will be reducing your exposure to toxins and reduce your chances of suffering from an environmental illness by using non-toxic products.

Reduce your trash by paying attention to how items are packaged when you purchase them. About one third of all paper disposed of each year is from packaging. Bring your own bags anywhere you shop. Avoid excess packaging. Consumer driven advocacy has had an impact on how some items are purchased. Music CD’s are an example. You may recall the large plastic boxes that CD were packaged in to prevent shoplifting. People were bothered by the amount of waste and the industry responded by switching to re-usable jackets on the CDs. If you purchase an item that you feel is excessively packaged, send a quick letter or an e-mail stating your concerns.

In Europe, with its limited land space, a variety of approaches are used to reduce waste in purchases. In Ireland you pay for each plastic bag you use. In Germany, the stuffing used in a pocketbook is removed before you leave the store. Companies that ship items to a person’s home must arrange to have the cardboard box picked up. Consider purchasing in bulk and using refillable containers whenever possible. My favorite tip for reducing unnecessary packaging is to bring your own container to a restaurant for any leftovers.

Reduce your energy use by purchasing energy efficient appliances. If you are friendly with your neighbors, consider ways that you can work together to reduce large purchases. Not everyone needs to have his or her own lawnmower or a variety of other home maintenance items. Some families even share cooking responsibilities that will reduce the time everyone spends in the kitchen. You’ll build stronger ties while saving money, and reduce your impact on the environment.

Reduce wasteful gift-wrapping by making the wrapping part of the present. A diaper bag can hold presents for expectant parents. A toolbox with a few tools can start a young person on his or her own path of reducing and re-using. An edible gift can be packed in a re-useable glass, plastic or tin container. For his 16th birthday I gave my nephew a key chain and all the items needed to wash the car that would be in his near future. I put everything in a bucket and tied a ribbon around it.

Alter your purchasing habits by considering how they may help you to further reduce. Tree free cards and paper products are made with 100% post-consumer paper. You will reduce the number of trees cut down and keep material out of landfills. To even further reduce wood use, consider installing bamboo flooring in place of hardwood. Bamboo grows back in as little as four to six years compared to the decades involved in the re-growth of trees.

Reduce unwanted junk mail by writing to Marketing Association’s Mail Preference Service at P.O. Box 643, Carmel NY 10512 and asking for your name to be removed. You can download a form to stop receiving credit card offers at or by calling 1-888-567-8688. Once you put reducing first you will find many creative ways to apply it.


Re-use is the next step on our model of green living. Purchasing items second hand reduces the impact that the manufacturing and shipping process has on the environment. Consider repairing an item instead of replacing it. Second hand furniture is widely available and for the cost of paint you can have a customized item perfectly matched to your décor.

The Internet has provided wider access to free items through the FreeCycle Network™. FreeCycle was started in May 2003 to promote waste reduction in Tucson, AZ. The network consists of 3,600 individual groups around the globe. You join your local group at Membership is free. You will receive e-mails from people in your area that are looking to pass on items or posting desired items. It’s a wonderful resource for obtaining needed items and passing on things that are no longer used by you.

It can be fun finding new uses for old items. A wicker chair that is no longer suitable for the house can be an accent piece in the garden with a pot of flowers on the seat. An end table that doesn’t fit in the living room can be painted and find new life as a bedside table. Ski poles become a support for growing vines, old panty hose can be used to strain paint, a door becomes a desk, a ladder can be transformed into a shelving unit, tablecloths can become napkins, and so on. Being handy and able to sew will expand your capabilities for transforming the old into something new.

Re-use can be used to create closer ties with your local community. Exchange clothing and toys as children grow. Children can be encouraged to share video games and an adult clothing swap can be a fun social evening and a no cost way to add to your wardrobe. After my children were born I remember swapping around clothes with friends as our sizes changed.


At last we come to recycling. Applying the first two steps should provide a significant reduction in the amount of material needing recycling or disposal. Learn the regulations about what is acceptable for recycling in your town. In some communities plastic #1-7 is accepted and others may take only #1 or #2. Look on the bottom of plastic containers and you will find the grade inside a triangle of three arrows. In many community recycling programs #3-7 are not re-usable, but by including them in the collection it increases the numbers of #1 and #2 plastic recycled. Prior to purchasing, check what number the container is. If you are choosing between two items and one container is a # 1 or #2 and the other is #3-7, choose the #1 or #2 and you’ll know it will be recycled. Americans throw away enough plastic bottles each year to circle Earth four times. Five recycled plastic bottles make enough fiberfill to stuff a ski jacket. Every hour, we throw away 2.5 million plastic bottles (22 billion plastic bottles per year).

Whenever possible buy items in glass containers. Glass never wears out and can be recycled over and over. The glass bottle your ice tea came in can be ground down and made into the same bottle again. Over a ton of resources are saved for every ton of glass recycled: 1,330 pounds of sand, 433 pounds of soda ash, 433 pounds of limestone, and 151 pounds of feldspar. Recycling one glass bottle saves enough energy to light a 100-watt light bulb for 4 hours. Plastic, on the other hand, cannot make the same container again. Municipal recycling programs are usually limited to food and beverage containers. They usually do not accept glassware, dishes or pyres. Some municipalities want residents to sort the glass by color. Most are able to sell the glass or recycle at no charge.

Cardboard is the number one recycled item in the U.S. Almost all cardboard boxes are made from recycled content. U.S. landfills contain about 36-38% used paper products. A 12-foot high wall could be built from NYC to Los Angeles with all of the office and writing paper thrown out in the U.S. each year. Much of this paper could have been recycled and manufactured into new products. A ton of paper from 100% recycled materials spares 17 trees. One tree can filter up to 60 pounds of pollutants from the air each year. Close the loop by purchasing products made from recycled paper. That will generate even more need for recycled papers.

Find outlets for items that your municipal recycling program may not take. Many dry cleaners will take back their wire hangers so give your business to that cleaner. Reuse packing material or share your excess with family, friends or local businesses that may need it. Senior citizen centers may take yarn and cloth, magazines can find a home at day care centers, boy’s and girl’s clubs, or nursing homes. A few quick phone calls can find a willing taker.

Put your thinking cap on and you will find many creative ways to reduce, re-use and recycle. Remember, one person’s trash may truly be another’s treasure.

Mary Farrell teaches self-empowerment tools and is a writer, environmentalist and student of herbalism. Mary can be reached at and 508-747-5202