An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Remember these words muttered by Mom after you caught a bad cold usually doing something foolish -- like playing out in the rain without a warm jacket? How many health problems would have hurt a lot less if we had paid more attention to warning signs in the first place?
This lesson applies to the environment, too. Preventing a problem is usually the cheapest way to go when it comes to protecting urban and rural environments. One of the best examples is taking responsibility for your own garbage.
Consider this: each American, on average, generates four pounds of waste every day. Nationwide, the total is more 200 million tons per year, more than a quarter of which is merely packaging, the No. 1 waste problem in America. The recycling ethic has helped stem the flow of garbage into expensive landfills; but it is only a part of the solution and its role should diminish over time. How can that be? Attribute it to the beauty of prevention.
Waste prevention is commonly referred to as "source reduction." It's really a rather simple concept: eliminate waste before it is created. Less waste means less of a waste management problem, less of a need for recycling. While recycling is an effective way to manage waste materials once they have been generated, waste prevention reduces the amount of material used in the first place.
Waste prevention is the reduction in the amount or toxicity of trash generated. If you don't create waste, nobody has to pay to store it, collect it, or haul it to a landfill. Waste prevention saves precious natural resources by encouraging more efficient use of raw material. And it reduces pollution associated with extraction of raw materials from the earth, manufacturing excess products, and waste disposal. Waste prevention reduces the costs of composting, landfilling, or combustion in power plants or incinerators. Newton spends $6 million each year for solid waste management.
The key to making waste prevention work is with us. We are all used to doing things a certain way and preventing waste means making lifestyle changes: purchasing more durable products, rejecting items with individually wrapped or single-serving containers; repairing and reusing items we might once have thrown away.
Waste Prevention Made Easy
We are slowly realizing that waste management is no longer an exercise in just finding new places to put trash. Even recycling is not enough to avert environmental and economic problems. The overall amount of garbage produced in the first place has to shrink…. it’s that simple.
This realization is not necessarily easily translated into day-to-day actions. The good news is that more and more individuals and companies are committed to a program of waste prevention -- sometimes called source reduction -- to limit the amount of garbage that ends up going to expensive landfills.
Opportunities for preventing waste present themselves everyday. Here are some suggestions:
On the Home Front
Think twice before tossing. Can the item be reused for another purpose? Bags, boxes and envelopes can live many lives. They can store things – leftovers, buttons, nails or thumbtacks. Do not reuse containers that originally held harmful chemicals since residues can persist. Never store anything potentially harmful in containers designed for food or beverages. Label containers and store them out of the reach of children and pets.
If there is something you can no longer use, donate it to friends, relatives or charitable organizations. If all else fails, hold a garage sale.
Rent, borrow or share things you use infrequently like chain saws, rug cleaners or garden tillers. Repair and maintain items you already have, particularly large appliances and electronic equipment which take up a lot of space at the landfill.
Packaging is the leading source of waste. Shoppers should choose products with the least necessary wrapping. Consider large containers for products such as laundry soap or pet foods. Using concentrated products reduces waste, as does purchasing in bulk. Support store managers when they stock products with little or reduced packaging.
Another component is reducing waste toxicity. Many nontoxic alternatives can be found on store shelves. In addition, many communities are trying to reclaim items containing mercury similar to Newton’s Mercury Recovery Program.
In Your Backyard
Using nontoxic alternatives yields fringe benefits. Planting marigolds to ward off certain pests not only limits the use of pesticides, but brightens up the day of anyone admiring your garden.
Creates less yard waste by "grasscycling" (leave grass clippings on the lawn), xeriscaping (plant slow-growing trees and shrubs that require less water and trimming), and mulching (spread clippings and leaves around plants) to keep down weeds and keep in moisture. Start a backyard compost pile or a worm bin to convert food waste into a high quality soil.
Using a reusable mug for coffee or tea could save pounds and pounds of paper, styrofoam and plastic waste.
Persuade your organization to choose reusable products, such as remanufactured printer cartridges. Work with suppliers to minimize the amount of packaging and to return shipping materials such as crates, cartons and pallets for reuse. Use high quality, long-lasting supplies and equipment that can be repaired easily. Be efficient: double-sided photocopying can cut paper costs by 10% to 40%. Reduce hazardous waste - find out if your graphics department uses inks, solvents or glue that are available with fewer toxic ingredients. Ask suppliers about water-based rather than oil-or solvent-based products.
What Can You Do? Make a pledge to start today…become a waste preventer.
Socks and Plastic Containers
Why do we throw away plastic containers and not our socks? Both only need to be washed in order to be reused. A plastic food container is even more durable and long-lasting than the typical pair of socks, and can easily be used to store leftovers. But for some reason, we throw them away.
We have been sold on the concept of "convenience" which emphasizes consumption. We've been conditioned to believe that more, bigger, and newer is always better and more convenient. Making more informed choices about everyday activities, such as food shopping or lawn care, can make our modern lifestyle more sustainable.
Stop and think about it for a minute. Everything we buy is made from some material resource: plastic is made from oil, aluminum comes from bauxite ore, paper is made primarily from trees. All materials are valuable, whether we think of them as containers or products, disposable or reusable.
Consuming large amounts of water, electricity, gas, or any type of resource is unsustainable. Less consumption -- not more -- should be the overriding rule behind shopping. For example, choosing products that use less packaging or that use more environmentally friendly ingredients supports sustainability. Not buying products that use excessive packaging or that consume large amounts of natural resources will encourage companies to change their products.
Americans throw away six billion disposable pens every year, taking a big toll on our landfills: they use precious oil in manufacturing the plastic and consume energy for production. Don't forget to add the dollar out of pocket for the new pen. Is the expenditure of resources worth the convenience? And is it really less convenient to put our reusable plastic food containers in the dishwasher than to put our socks in the washing machine?
Your consumption carries an environmental price tag. The closer to zero you can get the final tally, the more sustainable your shopping and lifestyle.
Original source articles are used with permission from the California Integrated Waste Management Board and edited by Linda Walden, City of Newton Source Reduction Coordinator.