"Recycling is just a failure to reduce and reuse."
Recycling seems to be very fashionable these days, which is better than just throwing things into the bin and let them end up in a landfill. But for some reason, people are also turning to it as the holy grail of environmental problems - as long as it's recyclable or recycled, it's OK, we can consume more of it. They forget that recycling, although important, should be a measure of last resort, that it has environmental costs of its own, and that before recycling, we should above all try to reduce and reuse. Why is this happening? Is it merely lack of conscience and education about how this whole system works? Are the big industries promoting this recycling and "green" fashion on purpose, so they can keep mining our planet's scarce resources and fill their pockets with money along the way?
A few months ago, an animal help association in Portugal wanted to build a wall to shield their shelter from the winter muds that flow from the hill next to their terrain. Since bricks were very expensive and they're also concerned about the environment, they thought of reusing glass bottles to build their wall. They were quite happy about their idea and I think it was a very good initiative.
As usual, though, people mix up recycling and reusing, and I left a comment on their Facebook post complimenting them for their initiative but asking that they'd correct their wording of the construction project.
It reminded me of something I saw on a website some time ago:
Recycling is just a failure to reduce and reuse.
How true! We should first, and above all, try to reduce our consumption. For those things we can't avoid, we should try to reuse them instead of dumping them into landfills. Finally, for those things that we can't reduce nor reuse, we should recycle them to avoid having to extract further raw materials from our planet.
Recycling means transforming the material of a product, so that it can be used to create new products from scratch. For example, glass bottles can be molten, yielding "raw" glass that can be used to create new bottles, windows, refrigerator shelves, etc. All this has an economical and environmental cost, though: we have to spend energy to recycle the materials (and for some we need to spend a lot of energy) and frequently, as is the case with recycled paper, we need to use toxic chemicals. Still, this is a better alternative, because we reduce the amount of resources (ore, oil, etc) that we need to extract from our planet, and we're not dumping trash into landfills (some materials take thousands of years until they're totally decomposed and during all that time, those residues accumulate on the soil and pollute our water sources).
Reusing means using a product after what would normally be considered its end-of-life. For example, glass bottles would normally go to the trash or to be recycled, but instead they can be used for other purposes, like building the shelter wall. This doesn't have the energetic and environmental cost that recycling does, because we're not processing raw materials, and it's preferable to recycling, because it means we're using resources that have already been extracted from our planet, instead of extracting further raw materials in order to produce the material we need.
Reducing, which should be our main goal, basically means we would reduce the amount of resources we extract from our planet, which translates into not buying unnecessary crap every day and avoid contributing to the overall waste (for example, by not having lunch at the mall every day).
But then it hit me: we reuse stuff with the intent of avoiding having to produce new items of it, reducing the amount of raw materials we need to extract from our planet - but reusing those bottles to build the wall for the shelter wasn't going to prevent new bottles from being made, because they were not going to be reused as bottles, but as bricks, thus negating the purpose of the whole reuse idea.
So I leave you with these questions: is it always best to reuse things, or is it sometimes preferable to recycle them? Would it be possible/preferable to reuse old bricks, thus avoiding the need to make new bricks, and at the same time allowing the reuse of the glass bottles as bottles instead of bricks, thus avoiding the need to make new bottles?