Blog

The Most Important R-word

By Alex Truelove
Director, Zero Waste Campaign

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.

Most of us have encountered the three Rs of being green, complete with the eminent symbol of three green arrows forming a triangle. Perform a quick online search and you’ll see all kinds of fact sheets and infographics detailing how the mantra “reduce, reuse, recycle” conserves natural resources, landfill space, and energy. Most of these accounts imply that the three R’s are created equal. In other words, recycling is just as good as reusing or reducing, so long as you’re not throwing stuff away. But wait, that’s not true! The three R’s appear in a particular order for a reason, to show hierarchical preference. Here they are again:

Reduce (best option)

Reuse

Recycle

This is not to say that recycling or reusing is bad. We need to reuse and recycle in order to create a sustainable, zero waste, circular economy. The point is, there are limits to how much we can recycle and reuse if we don’t reduce first.

Consider the global clothing industry as an example: once upon a time, rich countries donated their used clothing to poorer countries, which were worn again or turned into rags and blankets, creating a cycle that benefitted everybody. Poor countries received cheap clothes, rich countries the dissolution of guilt and marginal returns. I’ll be the first to admit, I thought this was still true, until junkyard connoisseur Adam Minter recently exposed the ugly truth. In short, the aforementioned cycle in in jeopardy because the demand for used clothing is collapsing.

There are two mechanisms behind this. First, rich countries are buying and getting rid of clothing faster than ever. Thanks to accelerating fashion trends and the supply chain optimization of fast fashion brands like H&M and Zara, Americans buy 60% more clothing compared to 2000 and get rid of garments twice as fast. Our worst clothing choices of yesteryear are being disposed of at a rate of 10.5 million lbs. annually!

Second, while the supply of used clothing has exploded, the demand in poorer countries has diminished because new clothing has become cheaper. Just a few years ago, the city of Panipat, India was the largest recycler of wool garments, turning them into blankets for disaster relief. Unfortunately, the cost of shipping clothes halfway across the world resulted in lost market share, as Panipat’s blankets have been overtaken by virgin fleece versions manufactured in China.

The rise of new clothing in all countries engenders enormous environmental costs. In addition to billions of clothing items going to landfills, new manufacturing is incredibly resource intensive. Consider this: a single average cotton t-shirt requires 700 gallons of water and emits almost 5lbs of carbon dioxide!

So, how do we fix this environmental disaster-in-the-making? Most importantly, we have to reduce! By purchasing fewer, higher-quality garments produced in a more sustainable way, we’ll make the biggest difference. Should we still invest in reuse and recycling systems? Of course. Should we price clothing to reflect the environmental externalities borne by the manufacturing process? Absolutely. But, so long we keep buying more and more clothing each year, we’ll never reach an equilibrium in which we can create the circular, sustainable economy we desire.

The good news is that we’ve reduced our dependence on environmentally destructive materials before. Remember the hole in the ozone layer? We reduced CFCs and HCFCs as refrigerants. Remember acid rain? We reduced sulphur and nitrogen dioxide emissions by installing scrubbers in coal plants, or shutting them down entirely.

 

We have another opportunity today, to cut down on landfill waste pollution and greenhouse gas emissions by changing our current consumption habits. Let’s replace the current ethos of purchasing disposable items and instead reduce our consumption and refocus on quality and durability, in clothing and in everything we buy.

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