How to Reduce, Reuse, Recycle (and Precycle)
Environmental threats are jeopardising the future of life on earth, with a myriad of complications causing serious harm to the planet and its seven billion inhabitants. In early 2019, the United Nations held the annual environmental conference and released a seven-hundred page report of the damages.
From overflowing landfills and plastic-ridden oceans, to a steadily rising climate and dissipating fossil fuels, the world as we know it is in dire straits.
We live in an age of convenience, where pre-packaged ready-to-eat food is found around every bustling street corner. With the racing pace of the modern lifestyle and widespread availability of single-use plastic, it’s no wonder that the lifestyle of our era is commonly described in two very dirty words.
The implications of our ‘throwaway culture’ go far beyond impending space issues and mushrooming plastic islands, to include the fact that any organic matter decomposed within a landfill is known to release methane – a deadly greenhouse gas.
Greenhouse gases are directly responsible for the climate crisis, with carbon dioxide making up eighty-five percent of emissions. When fossil fuels are burnt for manufacturing purposes (through electricity and transportation) carbon dioxide is released and the ecological balance is tipped.
This has far-reaching consequences for humanity, with scientists predicting an increase in natural disasters, and numerous countries already plagued with dangerous levels of air pollution.
The solution to this global catastrophe is still within our reach, and each and every one of us holds the power to make a real difference. By embracing the green-mantra of ‘Reduce, Reuse and Recycle’ (as well as Pre-cycle) we can reduce our carbon footprints and preserve the health of our planet.
Going green is best implemented in stages and this guide outlines the simple starting points that have far-reaching impact. Every step forward is a step towards global revolution and, as we journey towards a brighter future, our united efforts can literally save the world from imminent destruction.
Reduce Single-Use Plastic
Statistics have revealed that over 150 million tons of single-use plastics are produced per year, forty percent of which is manufactured as food packaging. Single-use plastic is only used for a matter of minutes, after which it typically finds its way into our oceans and landfills.
Plastic is not biodegradable and, if it is not recycled, will remain on the planet for hundreds of years to come. Even if it does eventually ‘decompose,’ plastic causes permanent damage to the ecosystem in the form of trace elements that infiltrate the composition of the natural environment, and never disappear.
While many plastics can be recycled, the fossil fuels burnt in the production or recycling of single-use plastics are a waste of our dwindling natural resources. The transportation of raw materials and recyclables plays a significant role in the emission of greenhouse gasses and the resulting climate crisis.
In light of the comprehensive link between food packaging and single-use plastic, the best strategy for environmental change is to reduce the amount of plastic packaging that we purchase on a regular basis. As consumers, we hold the power to redirect the demand for low cost eco-friendly alternatives.
The more we refuse to purchase fresh produce, processed food or takeaways that are sheathed in single-use plastic, the more the food industry will respond to our call for change. Therefore the best way to lighten the carbon footprints we leave behind us is to become mindful of our power to act as a catalyst for transformation.
By choosing to support companies whose food is served or sold in eco-friendly packaging, we can avoid unnecessary waste and save energetic resources that would be used to recycle non-biodegradable materials.
Composting is a great way to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that result from organic matter being sent to the landfills. By creating a compost heap or investing in a household bin or bag, we can return organic materials to the earth and avoid taking up space in the landfills.
Packaging made from plant-based materials such as paper or cardboard (and even excess food) can be composted at home and added to the garden to grow a beautiful bed of flowers.
Reuse Whenever Possible
An equally effective strategy in the fight for an eco-friendly future is to reduce the consumption of single-use plastic by mindfully reusing existing packaging options. Over the last decade 75 countries have introduced public policies with the intention of phasing out the notorious plastic carrier bag.
These policies have varied from fees to fines, and mark a turning point in the global attitude towards sustainable alternatives, by encouraging the use of reusable bags. While plastic bags are an excellent starting point, the principle of reusing can be applied to traditional food packaging as well.
With over 16 billion plastic-lined coffee cups being purchased yearly on a global scale, this equates to 4 billion gallons of water and 54,000 homes-worth of electricity down the drain. Due to the fact that the cups are typically lined with polyethylene, they cannot be recycled through the usual systems which results in 2.5 billion being sent to the landfills (in the UK alone).
For this reason coffee-lovers are encouraged instead to carry their own ‘reusable’ thermal flask which offers a number of additional advantages such as heat retention and optimal functionality.
Similarly not all take-out containers are created equal, with 170 million tons of waste (from single-use food packaging) generated by the UK annually. The solution to this throwaway crisis can be found in the simple lifestyle change of carrying a Tupperware type container.
We can use Tupperware in lieu of polystyrene or grease-stained cardboard for take-out and also to replace the use of cling-wrap at home. Reusable containers can also be used at zero-waste stores, where food is dispensed and weighed without any superfluous packaging.
Disposable utensils are also fast becoming outdated, so carrying a reusable set is an exceptional starting point in preventing excess wastage. Likewise, paper napkins can be replaced with a handkerchief or fabric serviette, instead of contributing to the production of disposable single-use items.
By developing the habit of carrying a reusable water bottle and refilling it from the tap, we can forgo bottled water and unnecessary spending. There are so many options when it comes to reusing, and many of these can save a significant amount of cash in the long run.
Recycle Everything that can be Recycled
Unlike digital recycling bins that can be utilised at the click of a button, real-world recycling involves a degree of education and effort. The biggest obstacle on the road to a greener way of living lies in the lack of public knowledge in terms of which direction to take.
The vast array of materials found in packaged products, combined with the variation of recycling-plant protocol, has left millions of well-intentioned people confused by the countless variables. The fact is that there are very few products that cannot be recycled, yet each recycling facility offers a unique combination of services.
Depending on what your local recycling depot or pick-up service offers, it is possible to recycle a vast array of food packaging. Some recycling plants require the materials to be sorted into categories, while others provide the advantage of sorting the packaging internally.
Either way, it is of the utmost importance that the recyclables are washed and cleaned prior to collection or delivery. If food or grease-stained materials enter into the recycling process, it will contaminate the entire batch which then has to be sent to the landfill. The same result occurs when an incorrect material is included in the wrong category.
For this reason, when going through a plant that requires pre-sorted categories, it is important to educate ourselves on the finer details. Traditional recycling materials such as paper, glass and tin are fairly easy to handle, with the exception of plastic-coated papers which can be confusing at first.
When it comes to the environment, plastic is the root of all evil, with seven different types requiring seven different recycling processes. To find out which plastic you are dealing with, simply examine the packaging for its number, and then refer to your recycling service for rules and regulations.
The other thing to be aware of when recycling food packaging is the fact that biodegradable or compostable ‘cardboard’ and ‘plastic’ can only be disposed of in specific conditions. As these materials are made from organic matter, they cannot be recycled alongside their counterparts, and require specific conditions in order to fully decompose.
Additionally, if these materials find their way into the landfills they will release greenhouse gas, due to the fact that they cannot disintegrate naturally in such compressed spaces.
You will need a storage area for recycling, whether it is a bin, a cupboard or a corner in the garage. Some prefer to store recyclables together and sort them out later, while others prefer a separate bin for each material. Finding a system that works for you and your space is a process that can be mastered in a matter of weeks.
Recycling is one of the easiest lifestyle transitions to make, as it doesn’t require critical thinking or sacrifice (other than cleaning and disposing of packaging differently). When beginning the journey to a greener lifestyle, it helps to start with small changes and improve over time.
Precycle for Optimal Results
Precycling is a valuable skill-set that can be developed as part of a long-term green game plan. Precycling involves analysing food packaging before purchase to assess whether it can fit into one of the three major categories: Reduce, Reuse and Recycle.
Precycling is actually the ultimate strategy of green-living, as it saves time and energy, in terms of effort spent on the aforementioned divisions. By only buying unpackaged food or reusable and biodegradable food packaging, it reduces the need for recycling altogether and therefore lightens the carbon footprint.
The best way to start precycling (which is a major step on the road to a zero-waste lifestyle) is to forgo any products with packaging that cannot be recycled or composted. This will vary based on the recycling and composting facilities available, but regardless of the variations it is a step in the right direction.
In order to accurately assess what can and cannot be recycled in terms of food packaging, it is a good idea to read up on the details of this comprehensive topic. It is also imperative to find out what services are offered by your local recycling facility, so as to avoid purchasing any of the materials that aren’t covered.
If you are already an avid precycler, the next logical step is to eliminate the need for recycling altogether. This can be done with reusable containers, flasks, utensils and water bottles, as well as through a home composting system. By Shopping at zero-waste stores it is possible to purchase produce and whole foods (such as pulses, grains, beans, dried fruit and nuts) without the excess packaging.
Any cardboard packaging or leftover food can be added to the compost and returned to the earth. Biodegradable materials such as cardboard, is essentially the least harmful packaging as it can be composted.
Due to the fact that paper and cardboard can only be recycled a certain amount of times, it is beneficial to look for biodegradable packaging that is made from previously recycled materials. If one is struggling to find an affordable eco-friendly alternative product, it is better to purchase the usual product in bulk to cut down on the total amount of packaging.
At the end of the day if there is one step to focus on, it would be to reduce the purchase of single-use plastics or unrecyclable materials. By learning more about what can be recycled and taking stock of the items you regularly purchase for your home or business it is possible to create an end goal which can be broken down into smaller steps.