I’ve worked in the recycling field for at least 15 years, and every recycling professional (and many in the general public) knows the classic waste management hierarchy: reduce, reuse, recycle. But over the last few years, as I've talked with recycling colleagues and addressed audiences on these issues, I’ve experienced mixed reactions to the once-worthy goal of waste reduction—that is, preventing waste in the first place.
The recycling system is a loosely connected but highly interdependent network that includes product manufacturers, distributors/retailers, collection entities, and processing facilities. But not everyone in the system is always a proponent of reducing our consumption and ultimately the waste that we produce.
Why isn’t waste reduction/prevention discussed more frequently by folks within the recycling system? Here are a few potential reasons:
Large amounts of resources, jobs, and funding are invested in recycling infrastructure.
This means that if we’re actually successful in decreasing the volume of waste we generate, this infrastructure may not run at full capacity. Landfill companies have made the same argument in years past: they don't want the landfill system they’ve built to sit idle, so they need to be assured that there’s always a steady stream of garbage coming in. The recycling system may be at a similar turning point. Local government collection operators, material recovery facilities, and end-market manufacturers all want to be assured that there will be enough recyclable feedstock in the system to keep markets working.
Funding for recycling collection comes mostly from local government fees and taxes.
Money that’s donated by corporations is rarely put into the area of waste reduction/prevention because their goal is to sell a product. From the corporate perspective, funding recycling infrastructure makes good business sense: buy a product, recycle it, then buy a new one. But if we moved to a model of reuse, or decided just to not purchase as many things overall, this wouldn’t benefit most corporations, which prioritize their bottom lines. Corporations often wield a lot of power at the local, state, and federal levels and sometimes work to inhibit community infrastructure, laws, and regulations that would help make reduction/prevention a more prominent feature in our waste system.
Some within the professional recycling community may have given up on waste reduction/prevention because it’s “hard.”
Generating “zero waste” is a challenging goal (and can have different meanings within the waste field), and even waste reduction can often be a struggle. Maybe there’s a belief that our current infrastructure, our capitalist economy, and overall social norms can't be changed to alter the way people consume goods. Perhaps the thought is that measuring something that isn’t being generated in the first place is too difficult, so why spend time working on it?
That said, there are plenty of good things happening to support waste reduction/prevention within governments, nonprofits, and corporations. Examples include:
So what can we do to tackle the barriers to waste reduction and prevention noted above? Consider the following potential solutions:
Create waste reduction/prevention campaigns that focus on items that aren’t widely recyclable today.
These include paper towels, plastic straws, single-serve items like coffee cups, plastic trinkets, chip bags, packing peanuts, etc. Reducing the use of these items wouldn’t impact the current recycling system, but it would help with wider efforts to save resources and protect the environment. Targeted waste reduction campaigns can help people question consumption by encouraging them to think more consciously about their “needs” prior to purchasing something.
Finance waste reduction/prevention work through personal donations.
We can support organizations working on these issues (such as New Dream) and request that local and state governments put more funding into waste reduction/prevention programs, since few corporations do.
Build up waste reduction/prevention and reuse infrastructure to be at least as strong as the recycling system.
This includes creating physical structures like lending libraries, swap meets, and share faires; developing online and mobile applications that support sharing; and investing in repair cafes, cooperatives, and thrift/rental/bulk stores. You can advocate for this type of infrastructure via policies and incentives such as extended producer responsibility, pay-as-you-throw, commodity taxes, and bans (e.g., a tax or ban on plastic bags).
Engage in efforts to reduce or eliminate planned obsolescence.
Planned obsolescence is the policy of producing consumer goods that rapidly become obsolete so that consumers have to purchase new ones, We can lobby corporations and vote with our dollars by refusing to buy from companies with a reputation for planned obsolescence (as well as fighting against policies that support it).
Take New Dream’s Community in Action “Reduce Waste” challenge and commit to making a change in your routine that will have a positive effect on the planet!
Granted, waste reduction/prevention may not be as easy as waste disposal or even recycling, but we can take action at all levels to prevent the creation of waste in the first place. We have a long way to go before all recyclable material is out of the waste stream, but we can start by trying to reduce the amount of recyclables we generate. This means taking a hard look at our recycling collection containers and being more conscious of avoiding products with excessive packaging (including single-use plastics), as well as turning down the many “freebies” we’re offered but don’t really need, from plastic trinkets to promotional items.
I can only hope that societal norms around consumption change so quickly that we get to repurpose our underutilized recycling trucks and facilities, due to the lack of material being generated. It’s my goal, as a waste reduction/prevention professional, to work my way out of job because there’s no more waste to manage. Just imagine!
Kelley Dennings is a member of New Dream’s Advisory Council and has spent years studying and working at the intersection of environmental science and social and behavioral change. In 2018, she completed her master's program in public health at the University of South Florida, and she currently works for the Center for Biological Diversity on population and sustainability issues.