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Best way to reduce waste? Buy less stuff.

I can't tell you how much I love the Master Recycler program. We had two amazing speakers on Tuesday night, and one of them, David Allaway from the Department of Environmental Quality, just rocked our world. I wish I could repeat everything he said (and he spoke at about 80 mph, so it's impossible) but here are some things that stuck:

Upstream versus Downstream Waste: Upstream waste is all the harvesting of raw materials, manufacturing processes and transportation of stuff that happens before it gets to you. Downstream waste is what happens to the stuff once you get rid of it. The upstream impacts are significantly worse for the environment than downstream. So, if you buy less stuff, less stuff will be manufactured.

It is much better for the environment to reuse a product and extend its lifetime than recycle it. Example: reusing a corrugated cardboard box saves 3-4 times more energy than recycling it. Reusing a PC uses 5-20 times less energy than recycling it.

Landfills are not evil (at least the new ones aren't). We will never run out of landfill space. Keeping stuff out of the landfill is NOT an important reason for recycling. Recycling helps the environment because it takes significantly less energy and emits fewer greenhouse gases to manufacture a product from existing (recycled) materials than from virgin (new) materials.

The markets for recyclables are not too far away to justify long-haul transportation. I've worried about shipping plastics to Asian markets and whether that uses more energy than you save by recycling in the first place. Allaway says not: you'd have to send the plastics on a freighter 184,000 miles before you hit the "break-even" point. For aluminum it's 538,000 miles. (Aluminum is the most energy-intensive recyclable; yet it takes about 95% less energy to produce a product from recycled aluminum than from new.)

The take-away? He got me to really think about purchases and realize that investing in really good quality stuff that will last makes a greater impact than the impulsive buys I might make at Target. (Basically I will just have to stop going there. The temptation is too great.) It got me to thinking about furniture, and that our next purchase will be "vintage". It got me thinking that the next time I need a pair of jeans, I can head over to Katelyn's Closet consignment store rather than the Gap. And do my kids really need birthday party presents from their friends when they get plenty from their family? Do you have any good tips for reducing or reusing stuff that you care to share?   


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