Recycling – The Last Resort, Ten Steps to Consuming Less

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  • November 8, 2012 11:33 pm

Recycling: The Last Resort
By Dr. Leslie Jermyn

But Shopping Feels Good
Ten Steps to Consuming Less
Step One: Take Stock
Step Two: Shop & Acquire Wisely
Step Three: Use Wisely
Step Four: Waste Wisely
Step Five: Spread the Word
Step Six: Limit Desire
Step Seven: Deeper Analysis
Step Eight: Changing Habits
Step Nine: Taking it Public
Step Ten: Opting for the Simple Life
No Guilt

“I don’t recycle. I think recycling is like going to church – you show up once a week, it makes you feel good, and you’ve done your duty. Then you can get back to all the fun of sinning! …I came to the conclusion that when I recycled, what I was really doing was letting myself off the hook. As long as I did my little paper-glass-metal separation duty, I wasn’t required to anything else to save Planet Earth.” Michael Moore, Stupid White Men, pp.119-121

It probably seems strange to begin an article about recycling with an argument for not recycling, but Moore has identified one of the problems with recycling: it cannot stand alone as a planet-saving action. In fact, recycling is really more of a last resort than a solution in and of itself.

When recycling was first introduced in my home town, it came as part of a triumvirate of actions: “reduce, reuse, recycle.” It was the final step to follow the other two and it is only in this final position that it makes any sense at all. Let’s consider the example of batteries.

Consumption of batteries has increased dramatically since the 1970s with the invention of more and more portable and cordless appliances. Where once there was only the transistor radio and flashlight, we now have cordless tools, phones, computers and accessories, pagers, cellphones, blackberries, palmpilots, toys, CD players, iPods, MP3 players, cameras, video cameras, toothbrushes, car keys, remote controls for home entertainment, and so on. Batteries are nasty little beasts containing some of the most toxic substances on earth: cadmium, mercury, lead, and sulfuric acid. One car battery alone contains 8.16 kilograms (18 pounds) of lead and 0.45 kilograms (1 pound) of sulfuric acid. Most used batteries end up in landfill where their contents leak out into ground water, poisoning aquatic species or accumulating in their bodies, making them unfit for human or non-human consumption. There are ways to recycle batteries and car batteries are a good example of a product that is now mostly recycled (over 90%) rather than dumped. However, the recycling process uses lots of energy to melt and smelt components, water to clean and process them and fuel to transport at either end, and that doesn’t include all the energy, water and dangerous mining and smelting that was necessary to make batteries in the first place. I highly recommend recycling all your batteries and using rechargeables wherever possible, but an even greater contribution to the planet’s health, and yours, would be to reduce your use of batteries in the first place.

Reduce & Be Happier!
So the place to start when talking about recycling is at the beginning with reducing. Now if recycling can be equated with a weekly repentance, reducing sounds like long term penance akin to a lifetime diet. But it isn’t actually as bad and self-sacrificing as it sounds. Indeed, it might actually be one of the secrets to happiness.

An oft quoted statistic is that self-reported happiness peaked in 1957 and has declined ever since. This number is based on surveys done in the USA, the consumption capital of the planet. It has plagued philosophers and scientists ever since with the question, ‘what makes us happy?’ Without boring you with the details, the consensus is emerging that we humans are happiest when we are not suffering material want (when we are fed, clothed and sheltered) and have rich emotional and social connections with other humans (family, friends, community). It sounds simple enough, so why aren’t we all doing it?

Because we live in a world that makes doing this rather difficult.

Happiness increases when people move from poverty to an adequate standard of living but then levels off or declines when they become wealthy beyond their needs. How does that work? It seems that as we enter the territory of surplus wealth, we begin to compete with others to prove our social standing. Veblen coined the term ‘conspicuous consumption’ to capture this drive to prove to others, by virtue of our clothes, houses, cars and gadgets, that we are their equals or superiors. Turns out, not so surprisingly, that this doesn’t produce warm and fulfilling relationships with our fellow humans and thus doesn’t help us to be any happier.

We don’t conspicuously consume as part of our genetic nature, we do it in the context of a consumer society where we are reminded ceaselessly that objects and brands define us and tell the world about our tastes and social worth. The consumer society emerged, not so coincidentally, in the 1950s and as it took hold, happiness declined. The more we feel pressured to keep up with the Joneses, the less time and energy we have to spend with our families, friends and neighbours (those evil Joneses), the less rewarding we find life overall, and the more we consume in order to substitute for human connections. It’s a vicious circle.

But Shopping Feels Good
Yup, it does. There’s nothing like the flush of excitement when unpacking something new and trying it on or installing it in your living space. New things are shiny, bright, pretty and quite frankly, fascinating. We work hard at shopping – at finding just the right thing to complete us (wardrobe, entertainment, décor etc.). And we rightly feel proud of ourselves when we do it well. But, the high you get from new stuff is pretty short-lived. It’s like any stimulant, it’s hard to maintain the feeling for any length of time. Pretty soon, the house or wardrobe starts to look old and boring again and off we go to get our fix and that’s the problem. Like addicts, we sacrifice time, money and vital energy consuming things when we could be doing more happiness-producing activities like spending time with other people – sharing meals, conversing, exercising, volunteering, helping, caring etc. Oh, and by the way, giving people things does not substitute for spending time with them though we often think that it does.

If you think you are a compulsive shopper you will need help to change. For the rest of us, there are a few actions and mental shifts we can use to reduce without feeling punished. The first five steps are the basics. Steps Six to Ten are more specific and in some ways more difficult but if you can make the first principles an active part of your life, you’ll be contributing to a better world and probably find yourself feeling less weighed down by material possessions and the garbage they create.

Here are a couple of online diagnoses of the extent of your shopping addiction:

Ten Steps to Consuming Less
Step One: Take Stock

Literally do a stock-take of your current possessions. Move room by room and go through every cupboard, closet, drawer, box or pile. Get rid of all things you don’t like or don’t use. We’ll discuss what to do with it all later… As you’re amassing great piles of unwanted stuff, consider how and why you acquired it in the first place and make a list of those reasons so that you can remind yourself not to repeat the mistakes.

Some common mistakes are:
– it was on sale or cheap
– the sales rep and/or my shopping companion urged me to get it
– everyone else had one / it was trendy
– it looked so good on display
– it wasn’t quite the right size/colour but I thought I would alter it
– it was a gift from a person who doesn’t know my taste very well
– I needed something to cheer me up that day
– I got on holiday to remind me of that place and now it seems out of place
– It was really expensive so I thought it would impress my friends/colleagues etc.

There are other bad reasons for acquiring stuff but these are fairly common. Once you’ve seen the quantity of things you have for the wrong reasons, begin to train yourself to acquire only for the right reasons and when YOU consciously choose to rather than when you react to your environment.

Step Two: Shop and Acquire Wisely

Some tips to acquiring less and acquiring wisely:
– decide what you want before you leave the house and don’t accept anything that doesn’t meet your criteria
– take the amount of money you think you will need and no more (leave bank cards at home)
– if you see something that you want to buy ‘on impulse’ ask the vendor to keep it for you for a day
– don’t buy things you won’t use – if you’ve never made bread or yogurt or pasta, chances are very high that bread/yogurt/pasta makers won’t change that
– consider whether you could rent the item rather than buy it
– don’t shop with people who encourage you to spend so that they don’t feel bad spending too; take honest critics with you to counteract persuasive salespeople
– don’t shop to fill time – find more rewarding activities for this spare time
– Set time limits on shopping so that you don’t become exhausted and lose your resistance to fancy displays and good sales reps; if you go home with nothing, it’s not a failure on your part
– Don’t shop when you don’t have space for what you’re going to buy; alternately, you could have a policy of having to remove something comparable from your home before adding something new
– Talk to people who give you inappropriate gifts; give them concrete suggestions about things you like and will use (consumables like food can be good gifts because they don’t get wasted); if you don’t need anything, ask them to use their gift budget with you going out together; if that’s not appropriate, ask them to make a charitable donation in your name and reciprocate with the gifts you give them
– One good quality item beats a dozen cheap knock-offs any day so save for the best you can reasonably afford rather than having to throw away cheap junk
– If your taste seems to change with the weather or with the fads, buy nothing until you can determine what YOU like independently of what advertisers or your friends suggest you SHOULD like; taste does take time to emerge so go easy until you’re more certain that your purchases reflect you; you may skip whole fashion seasons this way but you’ll be happier with what you buy in the long run
– Consider buying used, second-hand, vintage or antique rather than new. That way, you don’t contribute to environmental abuse of the planet, you can often get better quality for less money and you avoid temporary fads in design (you substitute old trendy for new trendy which is often more trendy!)

Step Three: Use Wisely

In the throw-away society we live in, things are often very poorly made so that we are forced to replace them as often as possible. This is true for clothes, shoes, appliances and electronics, furniture, vehicles, tools, and just about everything else. If you think about it, this is a giant rip-off: we spend good money that we had to work for (or someone did sometime) for things that are designed to fall apart. There are ways to counter this and limit wasted money and waste in general.

– Buy quality
– Repair or refinish before replacing and avoid things that can’t be repaired
– Maintain things. For mechanical things, clean them, oil them, store them well, tune them when necessary, and use them properly. For fabric, hang or fold it, wash only when actually dirty not just wrinkled or worn once, air dry as much as possible, mend holes or hems before they get serious. For household goods in general, keep them clean (dirt wears out carpets for example), use appropriately (standing on chairs often breaks them for example), store properly, turn off when not in use, repair when possible.
– Use fewer things more often. There are a thousand ways to do this but just to take two common examples, many clothing items can be combined for different uses so that you don’t need entirely separate wardrobes for work, play and special occasions; having two sets of dishes for everyday use and for company is something of an archaic social convention – why not use what you like everyday?
– Before throwing something away, use your imagination to think about whether it can be used for a different purpose. For example, the Ikea shelf you’ve grown out of for your living area could be great as a storage shelf in the basement. An indoor table could be treated to become an outdoor table. An old pot might be a great planter … the possibilities are only limited by your imagination.

Step Four: Waste Wisely

Despite our best intentions, we will occasionally have to get rid of stuff but we can do this responsibly and with reduced environmental impact if we shift our thinking about garbage. We have grown accustomed to the idea that garbage is no longer our problem. Once I put it in a plastic bag and leave it on the road, it’s not my concern any longer. Problem is that it is still very much my concern. Garbage does not evaporate when it leaves the house. It ends up somewhere and that somewhere is likely to be close to someone’s home. If you imagine that you personally have to absorb all the waste you create in or around your living space, you will quickly shift your thinking away from ‘out of sight, out of mind’ waste habits toward more responsible waste management. This brings us back to recycling, but it goes further than that. Here are some ideas for taking your garbage seriously:

– Before throwing things out, consider whether they might be useful to someone else. Clothes that you don’t like or that don’t fit may help someone in need. There are charities and shelters willing to accept donations and some will collect from you if you take the time to contact them – take the time. Likewise with appliances and computers – find out if someone in your area is reusing them and make the effort to connect. Books and magazines can be given to hospitals or retirement homes. There is also a network called Freecycle where you post things you want to give away and people contact you if they want it (just search freecycle on the internet to find the internet network in your area). You might even be surprised to find that your friends or family would like some of your old stuff – ask around before throwing out.
– If you have an entrepreneurial spirit, you may want to sell your old stuff at a yard sale or through a consignment shop. You contribute to the great recycling circle and can even earn some money! Many consignment shops have a system where money you earn from them is worth more if you spend it back with them so that you can get a bargain on new old stuff to boot.
– Follow your municipality’s instructions for disposing of toxics – imagine that they will end up in your backyard if not treated properly.
– Recycle all goods that are accepted in your area.
– If you have a house, you can also recycle garden and kitchen waste on your property by composting. It’s easy and removes most of the heavy stuff from your garbage. There are rules for good composting so check out your municipal site or do an internet search to find out how it works best in residential areas.

Step Five: Spread the Word

One of the challenges we face when we decide to do things differently is that the people around us may not understand or support our newfound consciousness and so we find ourselves fighting uphill against pressure to conform to the norm. One way to meet this challenge is to enlist your friends and family to your cause – get them working with you because they appreciate your reasons or because they respect you. That will require that you communicate with them and inform them about what you’re doing and why. If you meet resistance, don’t yell and shout, instead, explain and invite, lead by example, reward all efforts and then explain some more.

My family has shifted away from crazy over-consuming gift-giving involving lots of stuff we don’t need toward giving thoughtful and unique gifts that are second-hand, hand-made, fair trade and/or support a cause we believe in. There are many fewer presents under the tree at Christmas but giving and receiving is more fun and we are just as happy to be together as ever. This change happened over a few years where some of us talked about changing things and suggested new ideas while acting on them. Slowly, others got the idea and now it’s pretty much just the way it’s done. It’s amazing what people who care about each other can accomplish with a little help and patience.

Step Six: Limit Desire

If you want to take your reducing habits a step further, you have to deal with what makes us want stuff in the first place and eliminate it from your life. As I suggested at the beginning, we don’t consume because we’re human, we consume because that’s what everyone and everything around us is telling us to do. Consider how many advertisements you see in a single day: how many billboards, TV ads, print ads, posters, product placements, and ads walking around on the backs of your fellow humans. This quickly becomes overwhelming to our simple primate brains. Whether or not you think you’re influenced by this deluge of marketing, the fact is that you most certainly are. Marketers are clever people trained to make us want stuff and don’t imagine for a moment that you’re too intelligent for them. They know you, as a market share, like they know their own mothers and probably better. If you find an advertisement amusing it’s because they know what makes you laugh. If a product appeals because it seems to reflect your politics or sense of self, it was designed that way. The point is that there is a big industry out there working overtime to make you want things. You are like a dieter in a candy shop if you’re trying to reduce your consumption in the modern media-drenched world we live in. Here are some tips for getting out of the shop without giving in:

– Reduce your exposure to advertising. The easiest way to do this is to turn off the television and cancel magazine subscriptions that are more advertising than editorial. Once you expose yourself to fewer ads, it will be easier to be critical of the ones you do see.
– When products are placed in movies or shows, take notice of it and don’t be sucked into the message (X, Y or Z must be cool if A, B or C is using it).
– Avoid products that have obvious brand labels. In other words, don’t become free advertising space for a corporation. This easily limits your choices of goods and generally limits your tendency to go with the trend.
– If you feel pressured to have certain things by your social set, talk to them about it. If they can’t accept you without the things, find people who will – remember, warm human relationships make us happier than competitive, judgmental ones.
– Avoid malls. Go to specific shops for the things you want. Do not go to big-box, departmental or mall retail spaces unless there is no other option. This will generally bring you back to street shopping which also supports local businesses and communities rather than faceless shareholders of faceless corporations. It has the added advantage of reducing your exposure to stuff you don’t need.

Step Seven: Deeper Analysis

If you did step one and took stock of your possessions, then you should already have a good idea of where you are weakest in terms of acquiring and consuming material goods. I don’t recommend cold turkey on your favourite gadgets and goodies because that’s too much like a rigid diet you are guaranteed to fail at. What I do recommend is a careful consideration of why you consume so much (in general or in terms of particular types of goods). Even if you’re not a shopaholic, you may use shopping as a psychological or emotional crutch of some sort and it’s worth a little reflection to find out what consuming does for you. Here are some possible deeper reasons for overconsumption that may apply to you:

– Generally, your life is not very satisfying. Your job or career is boring and not what you feel most competent or happy doing. You acquire stuff with the money you earn to prove over and over again that spending the bulk of your waking hours at work is worth it in the end.
– Similarly, you may be quite happy at work but understimulated, bored or lonely in your private life. Shopping and consuming takes the place of the human relationships you wish you had and fills those long hours between shifts at work.
– You are underconfident and hope that having the right stuff will compensate for your failings. This is a bit like the old adage about fast cars and middle-aged male egos but you don’t need to be a middle-aged man to want a material object to tell the world how great you are.
– You feel you need the things to fit into your social world.
– You lack imagination, or think you do, and buy too many things trying to create the perfect X (outfit, décor, office etc.).
– You are a great shopper who knows how to find bargains and get deals. You like doing it because you’re good at it.

There are other possibilities to be sure, but take some time at this step to figure out what motivates you to consume. Figuring this out will help you with Step Eight…

Step Eight: Changing Habits

If you’ve been successful in Step Seven, then you should have a clearer idea about what drives you to buy. If you’re serious about reducing your impact on the planet, you now have to decide which habits of thought and which behaviours you’re going to change.

For example, if you know you shop to compensate for boredom, frustration or under-confidence in your professional or private life, it’s time to consider changing elements to improve your stimulation and confidence. A relatively easy step is to alter how you spend your free time to increase your sense of satisfaction. Apart from my personal bias, it turns out that a lot of science supports the claim that watching television is not a particularly stimulating thing to do. So, switch it off and find yourself a hobby – take lessons in something, go dancing, read books, chat with friends, cook good food for yourself, garden, walk, anything to change the pace. Experiment with lots of activities until you find something (other than shopping of course) that you’re good at and enjoy. That may be enough to satisfy some of those cravings for success and creativity in your life.

If you concluded that your job was the big problem, then think about what you do want to do and pursue it. Easier said than done, to be sure, but if you’re trapped into a job you don’t like because you need the money it pays in order to buy the stuff that compensates for not liking the job…. It just might be that changing the job, even taking lower pay, will relieve the pressure to have lots of money because it alleviates the pressure to have lots of things. Doing something you like everyday could very likely save you a bunch of money, save the planet a bunch of stress and save your mental and physical health in the long run.

Perhaps your consuming habits aren’t so emotionally complex – you just like stuff. In that case, you will have to move straight to addressing the shopping habits you’ve acquired. Begin to substitute something else for consuming or shift your tastes so that your consumption contributes rather than saps the planet. You could, for example, commit a part of your budget to organic, fair trade, recycled, or locally produced goods. In the end, though, you want to work toward consuming less of everything if you can.

Step Nine: Taking it Public

This isn’t the same as telling friends and family about your commitment to more sustainable living, it’s going a step further to becoming active for change. There are lots of ways to do this but here we’ll just look at a couple of examples.

– If your municipality doesn’t have a recycling program or there’s room for expansion to bio-degradable/compostable waste for example, contact your council and pressure them to take the next step.
– Refuse to buy goods with excess packaging and let manufacturers and retailers know how you feel. If you must buy something, unwrap it in the store and leave the waste behind. It’s a clear signal to them that enough is enough. Aim to produce as little waste as possible.
– In terms of food shopping, buy bulk, use your own carrying bags and buy produce with as little packaging as possible – one of the best ways to do this is to support farmer’s markets where plastic wrapped food is uncommon. Again, let supermarkets know how you feel.
– Start a campaign in your area or workplace to reduce use or increase reuse and recycling of a particular material.

The point of taking it public is to get active in your community or in terms of letter and petition writing in order to effect a change that goes beyond your personal domain.

Step Ten: Opting for the Simple Life

If you’re really committed to eliminating excess consumption and waste from your life, there is a movement to slow or simple living, sometimes called voluntary simplicity, that emphasizes getting off the consumption grid and back to basics. The economic foundation of this movement is to reduce your need for money by reducing your need for things that you don’t need. From there, other changes can take place. The point is to reconnect with the human and natural world by taking responsibility for your decisions and your life in a deliberate, careful manner.

There is a library of resource materials out there – most websites feature dozens of books (for sale rather ironically) on the topic but you can get the big ideas without spending a dime. If it sounds appealing, don’t buy the books, get a library card and do some reading. This is not a commitment you will make lightly if you choose this path but take heart, if you’ve worked through steps 1-9 and adopted them, you’re most of the way there already!

Take a look at some of these websites to get an idea of what voluntary simplicity is all about: (more tied to religious principles) (Canadian source of great information) (US based but lots of great tips and ideas)

No Guilt
If you’ve taken the time to read through all these pages, you may feel inspired to tackle a problem or two in your habits or your world – great!

Unfortunately, an equally common response is to feel like it’s too much to think about and so you’re going to forget it all as soon as you can find your credit card and hook up with your mall buddies. This type of response is often a defensive reaction to feeling guilty but guilt isn’t really an appropriate response to this subject. To feel guilty for doing what you’ve been raised to do makes no sense at all.

Somewhere between taking full responsibility for every wasteful aspect of the world around us and rejecting all responsibility for our personal choices lies the truth. You didn’t create this world and you alone can’t change it. But, you contribute to it and help to forge the future by your daily decisions and actions. Decide what sort of world you want to live in 10, 20 or 50 years from now and act accordingly in the present. Act from responsibility rather than from shame. It’s all possible if we make it so.

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