Can We Use Less Stuff?

Recycling is easy - source reduction is hard. Even though source reduction - usually represented by its two surrogates, reduce and reuse - is at the top of the solid waste management "hierarchy" that we worship so religiously, recycling gets public support and public subsidies while source reduction gets lip service.

Our success in pushing source reduction aside shouldn't be a surprise. Recycling really is easy. All you have to do to recycle is to manage your garbage a little differently. Just separate the trash from the recyclables and place both containers at the curbside on collection day. They will be gone before you return home at the end of the workday. Recyclables go "away," just like garbage does. Out of sight, out of mind, no pain, no inconvenience. And, because most of us pay just one bill for all our garbage services, we don't even know if recycling costs anything extra.

Source reduction isn't so easy. It requires work and a change in our lifestyle. Source reduction means we have to "use less stuff" (which also is the name of an excellent source reduction publication and a delicious pun on "useless stuff"). Using less stuff implies doing without. In reality, most Americans have no desire to use less stuff. We want to have our cake and compost it too.

To make matters worse, source reduction advocates often are their own worst enemy. They say if we do things like double-sided copying or using cloth handkerchiefs instead of paper tissues, we will be making less waste. Now, I don't deny that double-sided copying saves paper, and I prefer double-sided copies of memos when I travel because they make lighter traveling companions. But double-sided copying has little impact on the waste stream. As for cloth handkerchiefs, they provide a nice rest home for germs and give them a great chance to stay alive and active.

Maybe we should try a new source reduction approach. Starbucks could advertise espresso as source reduced coffee. An unmowed lawn could be a sign of a family dedicated to producing less waste. Patches need to be fashionable again.

Ironically, the biggest fans of source reduction can be found in the consumer products and packaging companies that are usually blamed for mindlessly creating trash. Those companies know that using less stuff is the path to higher profits. They are constantly looking for ways to make products with less raw materials and to find even lighter-weight packaging for their products. When successful, their raw material and shipping costs will decrease, and profits will rise. All because they want to use less stuff. We should praise these companies, not condemn them.

Let's admit it, we are not drowning in garbage. During the '90s, the amount of trash we individually created flattened. Even the EPA has documented the impact of source reduction. Industry's desire to increase profits by using less stuff clearly is the key to creating less waste. And without their dedication to using less stuff, we'd have a lot more garbage to deal with.

Opinions in this column do not necessarily reflect the National Solid Waste Management Association or the Environmental Industry Associations. E-mail the author at: [email protected]