“Reduce, reuse, recycle” is a commonplace slogan in the environmentalist movement, and each of those three steps is extremely important for reducing individual pollution. But did you know that the slogan is also meant to be an ordered list? Reducing consumption of disposable items benefits the environment the most; reusing them comes second; and recycling, which many people might regard as an environmental fail-safe, is not nearly as effective.


Earlier this month, The Daily reported on the phenomenon of “wishcycling,” “when someone throws an item into a recycling bin hoping that someone, somewhere, will sort it, clean it, and recycle it.” As it turns out, this is not nearly as eco-friendly of an option as people think.

In a recent article, The Seattle Times exposed a local fraudulent e-recycling business: Consumers would dutifully drop off their old electronic waste, thinking that it would be safely recycled, but it was actually unsafely scrapped while the company’s founders raked in a massive profit. Stories like this show that there’s no guarantee of your waste being successfully recycled when you pitch it into the bin.

Additionally, China, the world’s largest importer of recycling materials — including thousands of tons of recycling from the Pacific Northwest — has recently slashed the amount it will accept. This means that many well-intentioned recyclables may end up in landfills or rotting in warehouses. (It’s also worth noting that, even in optimal circumstances, much of Seattle’s “eco-friendly” waste was getting shipped overseas, generating massive amounts of pollution.)

So far, China’s restrictions have not impacted the UW’s recycling, according to Liz Gignilliat, manager of UW Recycling. Our recycling is processed by Waste Management, a local garbage, recycling, and compost industry. But that doesn’t mean that everything from our school gets recycled perfectly.

“Over the last year, a few select loads of recycling have been too contaminated to be recycled, primarily due to food and liquids,” Gignilliat said. “Foods and liquids can ruin materials, especially the most common items — paper and cardboard, which can soak up coffee, soda, or grease, and degrade or mold before it can be turned into new paper.”

Many people might not understand that throwing dirty containers into the recycling has the potential to contaminate the whole load, the opposite of what they intend when they wishfully pitch the containers in. Compostable plastics, like those offered by all HFS services on campus, come in handy, as they can be composted without having to be cleaned and dried.

But, aside from wishful recycling and compostable plastics, there are more, and better, options for students to help the environment. Members of Students Expressing Environmental Dedication (SEED), a sustainability-focused student group on campus, spoke to the importance of reducing single-use plastics, in a prepared statement.

“Students can use reusable wares and even get discounts for bringing their own mug or shopping bag,” the SEED members said. “Students can also make decisions about what to eat based on the waste they would produce. For example, eating in the dining hall on a reusable plate instead of taking your meal to go reduces waste, as does purchasing unpackaged or lightly packaged food at the market.”

Most coffee shops on campus (as well as every Starbucks) offer discounts when you bring your own mug. The District Market and the Nook also offer discounts for bringing your own reusable bag to take home your groceries. Even at standard grocery stores in Seattle, this will save you the five cents per bag charge — making sustainable options cost-effective.

It’s worthwhile to consider your typical habits and note where you’re generating a lot of waste. Do you often take dining hall or restaurant food to-go? You could save a lot of packaging and resources by choosing to eat in, or bringing your own reusable containers to take your food. Are you a shopaholic? Consider attending clothing swaps, buying secondhand, and even getting your favorite pieces mended at a Fix-It fair. Since the fashion industry is the second largest polluter in the world, opting for more mindful clothing purchases can make a big difference.

As you delve deeper into the world of sustainability and people trying to live zero-waste (or lower-waste), you’ll discover that there’s already a sustainable solution for just about every piece of waste you produce. From metal straws to menstrual cups, you can find reusable alternatives for just about everything, especially in Seattle. Local co-ops and stores like Eco Collective make this relatively easy.

One caveat, though: It’s a bit counterproductive to rush out and buy every “sustainable” solution you can think of, particularly if you’re not actually going to use them to reduce your waste. That multicolored metal straw ordered from Amazon gathering dust at the bottom of your backpack, while a great social symbol of your environmental devotion, isn’t going to do anybody any good. In fact, the process of manufacturing that straw and shipping it to you likely generated more pollution than the plastic straw you saved by using it once.

Instead, it’s best to examine your purchasing habits and buy ethical products that you know you can integrate into your lifestyle. This is where the first word of the slogan — “reduce” — is applicable.

“I recommend mindfulness when buying anything — it takes energy, time and labor to create, package, transport, and dispose of any product,” Gignilliat said. “Is it worth it? Is it in line with your values?”

Slowing down, rejecting mindless consumerism, and carrying your own packaging alternatives are some of the most important individual steps you can take for reducing waste. When you do have something to dispose of, be sure to properly sort it! Materials that can be recycled are often displayed on signs around recycling bins. The UW’s robust composting initiative also makes it easy to better dispose of your organic waste.

“When you put organic waste into a compost bin on campus it goes up to Everett to an industrial compost facility called Cedar Grove,” the SEED members said. “There it is broken down into soil and sold back into the community, even being used at the UW Farm!”

If you’re interested in getting even further involved with the lower-waste movement, consider joining SEED or another environmentally-focused organization on campus. Seattle also has many eco-friendly groups you can find on Facebook, including “buy nothing” and clothing swap groups.

While individual action is not enough to single-handedly combat the current climate crisis, reducing (and properly recycling) your waste is a huge step you can take to protect our Earth.

Reach writer Mac Murray at Twitter: @merqto

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