Column: Reduce, reuse, recycle – but does it really matter?

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, November 6, 2001

A few weeks ago the dairy we buy milk and juice from stopped offering their products in reusable jugs.

Tuesday, November 06, 2001

A few weeks ago the dairy we buy milk and juice from stopped offering their products in reusable jugs. Since then, I’ve been emptying the recycling container in our kitchen every day, instead of a couple of times a week. And the monthly trips to the recycling bins in Conger are starting to look as though they’re becoming weekly. We drink a lot of milk and juice.

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I had gotten accustomed to the use and return of the jugs; even the required deposit didn’t bother me. I liked the handles and the way they poured. I liked the way the milk tasted. Seeing empty jugs on the counter or in the back seat of my car reminded me that it was time to stop at the meat market and get some more.

But that’s all over. They’re not available any more. I heard that it’s cheaper for the dairy to fill throwaways than to keep washing and reusing the old jugs. More profit was realized or money was saved somewhere for somebody. Unfortunately, the environment and our natural resources – the resources used to manufacture plastic milk jugs anyway – are being used up.

When promoting the conservation of our natural (and unnatural) resources people often use three terms: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. All of these are important and useful ways to make better use of the resources we consume in our economy. We have made progress, as a society, on all three in the past years. But these three terms are not of equal importance. The first term, Reduce, actually describes the most important single element in conservation, both for the economy and the environment. Why waste precious energy and other resources on stuff that is just a wrapper or container? The last term, Recycle, the one that so much emphasis is often placed on in households, is actually a less efficient way to conserve resources.

Unfortunately, in this country, trying to reduce the amount of material that goes into the recycling bins (or to the landfill) is extremely difficult. We have grown accustomed to convenience in the things we buy at the grocery store, and convenience often means a lot of extra packaging -&160;cardboard, metal, plastic and other, more exotic materials -&160;to dispense with later.

When my relatives in Germany go to the grocery store, for example, they bring their own shopping bags and even their own, reusable, plastic egg cartons. Beer, the major beverage choice at grocery stores in that country, is sold in glass, reusable bottles. There is a lot less waste overall. Granted that Germans (and many other Europeans) are generally more tolerant of giving up &uot;privileges&uot; for the sake of the community, I don’t understand why we seem to be so reluctant to really do something about how much &uot;waste&uot; we generate.

So now I make the trip to the recycling bins a lot more often than I used to. I suppose that’s good news for whoever makes money off products made with old, melted down milk jugs. But I would much rather do my part to reduce the amount of waste than be a good &uot;recycler.&uot; But in order for that to happen, manufacturers need to change the ways they package and market their products.

I also worry if the worse is still yet to come, because as I read the regular columns by the county official responsible for &uot;waste management&uot; I get the sense that all is not well with recycling in Freeborn County. Irresponsible individuals are using recycling bins to dispose of household garbage (which should go to the landfill) or are dropping off large appliances and pieces of furniture at remote recycling locations. These sorts of people just don’t care how their decisions affect the lives of others.

If the county has to restrict or limit access to remote recycling locations, the ability to actively do even that little bit to help both economy and environment becomes so burdensome that it may become easier to burn the stuff or throw it in the garbage can, which takes us right back to where we were 40 years ago. I sure hope that won’t be the case, for the sake of myself and my children now, and for my future grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

David Behling is a rural Albert Lea resident. His column appears Tuesdays.