An ounce of prevention: think ahead before you buy

If you don't get it in the first place, you don't even have to recycle it.

by Roberta Desmond, Environmental Defense Fund

ecycling has become an everyday habit for tens of millions of Americans. As a result, recycling has grown substantially over the last decade: from 11 percent to 27 percent of all municipal solid waste. Despite this success, however, Americans still generate too much waste. Every year, each of us discards nearly 1,500 pounds of trash, most of which still goes to landfills and incinerators.

It's important to recycle more, of course, but there's an even more effective way to cut down on waste. Simply stated, prevent it. By not creating waste in the form of unnecessary products or packaging we not only avoid having to manage it later, we also avoid having to expend the energy, consume the natural resources, and create the pollution that comes from manufacturing it in the first place.

Waste prevention may be second nature to many environmentalists, but if we are to make it a national habit, we need to reach a much larger audience. New ads produced by EDF and The Advertising Council will help spread the word that waste prevention is all about purchasing wisely. These new TV, radio, newspaper, and magazine ads convey the smart shopping tips, "Reduce and Reuse."


Think reduce

  When you reduce, you literally buy less of the things you don't need, like excess packaging. About $1 of every $10 we spend on food pays for packaging. Some packaging is unavoidable, but you can:
  • Choose products with the least packaging, and thank store managers for stocking them.
  • Buy whole fruits and vegetables to avoid the unnecessary trays and wraps.
  • Buy the large or economy size (less packaging per pound of product).
  • Buy concentrates (again, less packaging).
  • When you have just an item or two, say, "No bag, thanks."

Reducing unnecessary purchases goes beyond packaging. A recent PBS special on overconsumption, Affluenza, suggests asking yourself a few questions before you buy something: "Do I really need it? Could I borrow one from a friend or neighbor? Do I have something already that can do the same job?"

Although it may take more energy and natural resources to create a durable product than a disposable one, the durable product comes out ahead for the environment in the end, because it's used over and over. For example, using 1,000 throwaway plastic teaspoons consumes over 10 times more energy and natural resources than making one stainless steel teaspoon and washing it 1,000 times. It's better for your pocketbook, too, because the durable product costs less in the long run. Here are some other ways to reuse:

  • Whenever you can, use durable items such as cups, plates, utensils, cloth napkins, sponges, and dishcloths.
  • Look for products that are available in refillable packages. Reuse bags, containers, and other items.
  • Maintain and repair durable products.
  • Buy reusable alkaline batteries (with no toxic cadmium or mercury).
  • Bring your own shopping bags to the store, or reuse theirs.
  • Reuse grass clippings as fertilizer by leaving them on the lawn (using a mulching mower) or by adding them to your compost pile.
  • Sell or donate things you no longer need, instead of throwing them out.


Preventing waste at work

  Many people have even more opportunities to prevent waste at work or at school. For example:
  • Use routing slips to share publications and documents rather than copying them.
  • Print and copy on both sides of the page.
  • Use electronic mail, and avoid printing your e-mail messages unless necessary.
  • Install software for paperless faxing via your modem.
  • Use spell-check and print-preview functions before printing a document.
  • Submit office forms such as purchase orders and time sheets electronically.
  • Use durable cups, glasses, plates, and utensils at work.
  • Buy reliable, long-lasting equipment for your office.
  Most of these steps not only help the environment, they save time and money, too.


Environmental and economic benefits


When you use less and reuse more, you're helping the environment both "upstream" (when products are manufactured) and "downstream" (when they're disposed of).

Waste prevention reduces pollution from manufacturing and the need for energy and natural resources, such as oil, metals and minerals. Reducing the use of resources in turn minimizes the environmental impacts of mining, drilling, processing and transporting them.

Downstream, waste prevention reduces the need for landfills and incinerators and the pollution these types of facilities generate. Waste prevention is even better than recycling, because recycling still creates its share of environmental impacts, although less than manufacturing products from scratch and then disposing of them.

Environmental and economic benefits often go hand in hand, and waste prevention is a prime example. When you cut down on trash, you save money for your community by reducing the cost of waste collection and management. You also avoid the cost of replacing throwaway items over and over again.

So think ahead when you buy, and put "Reduce and Reuse" at the top of your shopping list. And remember, when you've done all you can to prevent waste in the first place, recycle what's left!

  © 1998 Environmental Defense Fund. Roberta Desmond, EDF Public Service Director, is working on the new EDF/Ad Council waste prevention campaign. EDF Membership, (800) 684-3322.