Reduce, Reuse, Recycle Right
New technology brings an update to a beloved phrase.
Authored By: Curtis Dorval and Brooklyn Flick
If you grew up during the 70’s, 80’s, or 90’s you probably remember seeing or hearing public service announcements for recycling: “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle,” three chasing arrows in a triangle, and a feel good message of communities saving the planet. The “three R’s” are probably one of the most effective messaging campaigns ever created. Not only is it easy to remember, but those three simple words convey the entire meaning behind the message.
As we celebrate the phrase’s 50th anniversary, it’s important for us to reflect on both its influence throughout history and its impact within our lives today. Specifically we need to understand how it affects our finances, the environment, and environmental justice issues. But to begin this process, we must start by learning about the unspoken “R” in the concept, otherwise known as Recycling “Right”.
Importance of Recycling Right
There are both ethical and financial incentives to recycling; but recycling is only worth doing if it is done correctly. Our planet does not hold infinite resources, and the failure to protect and reuse what we have is greatly impacting our survival. While it may seem as though we will never see the effects of resource scarcity, we have already felt them in our lifetime with water. It is not a stretch of the imagination to think of how recycling right, or the lack of it, affects other resources as well.
Environment & Conservation of Resources
Conserving resources is a major component to preserving the environment. Extracting new and raw metals or materials to produce goods comes with a number of consequences including: species and habitat loss, degraded water quality, and air and soil pollution. But when we begin Reducing and reusing waste, we curtail the amount of greenhouse gasses (ghg) that are released into the air during raw material extraction and landfill decomposition. With fewer ghg and hazardous emissions, there is less pollution to ravage the planet and to ravage our health. If you want to see the impact of your contributions, the EPA has a nifty tool called the “Individual Waste Reduction Model” or iWARM, which shows just how efficiently someone can live by recycling various materials.
When we create less waste and recycle properly, we spend less money and can use the savings to invest towards incentives for the community. In fact, many people do not know that municipalities have to pay a fee to send trash to the landfill and if the quantity of trash is reduced, then the associated costs of disposal also decrease. The result is efficient tax dollar usage, leading to improved technologies and business incentives (when the government invests in updated infrastructure, businesses are more productive). The job market also benefits immensely from proper recycling. According to the EPA, in the United States alone, there are currently 681,000 jobs, 37.8 billion in wages, and 5.5 billion in tax revenues to be had from recycling. These numbers parallel many oil and gas companies in size.
Most landfills, incinerators, and waste management plants are located in communities with the majority of its tenants being low income and/or People Of Color. As history has shown, this is unethical, and the voices of the people who are most affected are often underrepresented or ignored despite having the same basic constitutional rights as any other American.
The importance of recognizing the effect of proximity to waste is crucial, especially when exposure to waste disposal sites has been the subject of numerous health-related studies. While conclusions vary, most research indicates that there are direct risks associated with living near disposal sites, including an increased risk for birth defects, cancer, and asthma.
We also know that the financial aspect is clear; waste disposal sites drive down home values. But why should we care about where people choose to live? The reality is that sometimes there is no choice.
For decades, federal and state institutions engaged in redlining. In short, banks and realtors refused to provide lending to People of Color and access to certain communities. This restricted People of Color to live in neighborhoods with low home values. Redlining stifled wealth building for these homeowners. While the full solution is much more complex (one instance can be found here), one solution is improving communities and home values.
By improving recycling technology alongside implementing greenspaces and community run programs, the desirability of these neighborhoods will improve. This can happen faster if we reallocate financial resources to invest in improved waste disposal technology, brought about by reducing waste expenses.
In addition, the UN has devised a set of 17 SDG’s or Sustainable Development Goals that recognize the intersectionality of equitable treatment of environmental issues. The utilization of these goals in the response to excess waste can be helpful as a basis for thinking of potential solutions in the future.
The New York Department of Environmental Conservation has introduced the ‘Recycle Right NY Program’ to inspire both children and adults to recycle through entertaining, useful initiatives which spread information and incentivize recycling with proper waste management. The largest tool being offered is a state funded organization with the same name. One major goal of the program is to end a phenomenon known as “wish-cycling”: when someone unknowingly tosses non recyclable waste into the recycling bin with the hopes that it will be properly handled.
What is most helpful about the Recycle Right program and its technologies is the actionable “how-to” aspect missing from most environmental agencies. Since this project’s inception, Sustainable Westchester has dedicated significant resources to the program. The modification of their website and smartphone application seek to provide the municipalities of upstate New York with tips and tools for recycling in their local area. While someone may be informed of the importance of recycling, the instructions for knowing how to recycle properly within their local municipality may not exist. This is what the Recycle Right program was created to offer.
Westchester County Implications
Found within Sustainable Westchester’s website and phone app is a personalized community guide with technologies such as the Recyclopedia, which explains what items can and can’t be recycled, as well as how to properly dispose of said item. With this knowledge, someone can then utilize the calendar feature describing how, when, and where to dispose of these items. The custom tailoring of information is extremely thorough within each municipality and covers information all the way from the state, down to the individual street one lives on. The best part of this modern take on waste management is the subsequent app that makes all this information accessible through our phones. Embedded in the app is a reminder tool to send push notifications on waste collection days so someone does not forget to take care of their waste even during holiday schedules.
What is most helpful about the Recycle Right app and website is its unbiased nature. Each person who uses the app can rest assured that the information being given offers the most environmentally conscious option available, even if it is the occasional recommendation to discard an item rather than contaminating the entire recycling bin. Integrating the user-friendly smartphone app and matching website, recycling can be added to a daily routine with ease.
It can also be interesting to see what companies around us are conscious of their waste footprint and implement aluminum cashback programs or used product collections like clothing, furniture, etc. The Recycle Right app has also implemented alternatives to simply disposing of an item: such as selling it, repurposing it, or shipping it to individual collection sites where they can possibly receive unique rewards.
In reality, almost all of our waste is recyclable or compostable; there is only a fraction of a percentage that is not. The end goal is zero waste, where all resources are utilized to their most efficient ends. This is not some pipe dream. Within the US, there are states like Maine producing initiatives that increase recycling and its efficiency that we can draw inspiration from. It is possible and Americans have been improving our recycling for decades. All we need to do is “Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle Right.”