’90s Kid Unleashed: Our current environmentalist movement forgets the 3 Rs

Reduce, reuse, recycle: the mantra of our childhoods. One trifecta of alliteration taught us everything we need to know about environmentalism, or did it? 

I ask because I don’t actually see a lot of reducing and reusing. We’re big on the recycling, but the alliterative ideal of environmentalism ends there. It makes sense. Why should we alter our daily lives when we can just toss everything into a recycling bin, the environmentalist equivalent of the Catholic confessional?

Some company promises it’ll hop in the ocean and wrestle my forgotten plastic straws from a poor sea turtle and recycle them into something new. What a delightful deus ex machina to the doom and gloom of climate change. 

Allbirds offers a $100 pair of sneakers made from recyclable materials. Neat! Pharrell wants to make textiles from plastic waste. Even better! For every asphyxiated sea turtle, there’s a new startup that promises to sell us a piece of the green revolution. Problem solved! Climate change fixed! We can all go home!

Except we can’t. To begin with, there’s not actually enough recyclable plastic to go around. In the United States, less than 30% of all plastic bottles are recycled. As more and more companies hop on the recycling bandwagon, this already-diminished supply becomes even more scarce. 

These upcycling sustainable fashion brands are particularly problematic because while a water bottle made of recycled plastic can continue to be recycled, the clothing pieces made from these recyclable materials will only end up back in a landfill. If we could increase recycling rates across the world, this would certainly increase the amount of plastic available to be upcycled into new goods and materials, but here’s the hard truth we’re avoiding: Recycling is not enough. 

There’s no way around the fact that 91% of plastic items globally aren’t recycled. Even if recycling rates increase, plastic can’t be recycled indefinitely. Moreover, plastic is manufactured from crude oil, creating carbon emissions, and a single plastic water bottle remains on the planet for 450 years or more. That’s right. Four hundred fifty years. Four hundred fifty years ago America wasn’t even a country!

We need to radically reduce our consumption and rethink our consumer habits. 

In 2008, an MIT study found that even Americans with the lowest energy usage still use more than double the global per-capita carbon emission. There’s no way around the fact that our lifestyles are wildly unsustainable. 

Meanwhile, companies can easily sway favor by promoting themselves as sustainable and emphasizing their use of recyclable materials, but our choices don’t exist in a bubble, and these so-called sustainable products are often not as environmentally friendly as we want. Think back to that upcycled piece of clothing that will simply end up in a landfill.

But what about reusing? Let’s think about that sea turtle choking on your plastic straw from Starbucks that you used despite the strawless lid — yes, I see you. He need not suffer now that we have reusable straws. Go free, turtle! Breathe! Reuse is surely a flawless part of the trifecta? 

Again, no, because our idea of reusing has become wildly counterintuitive. Think about the drawer of ever-accumulating Tupperware in your kitchen. Yes, it’s certainly better to use reusable containers than single-use plastic, but that doesn’t mean you can just keep buying and buying reusable containers into oblivion. All plastic has a price.

When reusable plastics become a trend, they defeat their own purpose. Look at Starbucks. They regularly release seasonal reusable cups. Celebrate Halloween with a spooky cobweb-themed plastic cup. Toss it in your cupboard, and two weeks later you can buy Christmas-themed plastic cups: one for hot drinks and one for cold, of course. 

The entire purpose of a reusable cup is to reuse it. If you buy one for every major holiday, you might as well just go back to single-use plastic. It is great that environmentalism has entered the mainstream consciousness, but the more popular it becomes, the more businesses and people seek to use the label of sustainability to make a quick buck.

Be wary of companies that preach sustainability but may not actually act on it. Do your research. 

Reduce, reuse, recycle but remember recycling is a last resort and not an end-all, cure-all to our environmental issues. Reduce, reuse, recycle but remember the purpose of reuse is still to reduce consumption. Reduce, reuse, recycle but mostly, reduce.