Why Recycling Is My Lowest Priority


We live in a world that loves sound bites and oversimplifications. We embrace concepts that sound wonderful without much critical thought. All the noise around recycling is a classic example of what happens when an idea gets a lot of press, but in isolation doesn’t really solve much. The larger and more inclusive mantra of "reduce, reuse, and recycle" is the real game-changing idea, yet we often forget about the first two “R's” and what they truly mean. To me, the three R’s are in descending order of importance. Here's why. (See also: Save Money by Rekindling the Art of Using Your Stuff)


For those of us who care about sustainability, good environmental stewardship, and simplicity, reduction is the primary motivator and the foundation of all the other principles. Reducing our wants and needs sets the stage for managing reuse effectively and recycling efficiently. Eliminating items from our personal orbits is the first small step in eliminating demand for them entirely.

It's comical and only cosmetically green to continually over-buy and think that we’re saving the earth by merely recycling the packaging of our surplus. Without reduction, restraint, and constant review, recycling is only marginally effective and provides us with a misleading sense of comfort and a hollow consolation.


Reuse is the big brother of recycling. It involves avoiding single-use items and giving new life to objects in their original form or with only slight modifications. Recycling means destroying the original form and remanufacturing a new item from the material. Recycling is energy-intensive; reusing is creative. Reuse happens in the sewing room, garden, art studio, or workshop. Recycling happens at the curb.


Recycling has a voracious appetite for waste — paper, aluminum, glass, and plastic are all fed into its gaping maw. Waste implies a cycle that’s just inefficient enough to leave something behind. As a result, recycling is the last stop in the short life of a product we couldn’t do without and couldn’t figure out how to reuse. It's a passive, business-as-usual approach to consumption that requires the very least of us — sorting the wrappers of our spoils.

I’m not saying that recycling isn’t necessary or valuable — it’s just the lowest priority. But it continues to get top billing in a world of environmental sound bites. After all, manufacturers, retailers, and marketers can’t quite figure out how to market the idea of “less” to us. Instead, they sell us designer "green" shopping bags, reusable mugs, colorful recycling containers, and more disposable products made with 45% post-consumer waste. What kind of revolutionary statement would we make if we just shopped less, bought less, reused more and ultimately had very little to recycle?

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Guest's picture

I believe you may be looking at this from the wrong angle. The ultimate point of recycling is not to simply keep churning the same mass of waste out and through the system, but to reduce(!) the amount generated as waste in the first place.

Here's what I mean. We eat a lot of yogurt and the #5 tubs *can* be recycled at a place near us, but we have been trying to eliminate as much packaging plastic from our purchases as reasonably possible. So,instead of getting the commercial yogurt, we buy organic milk and make our own (using recycled glass peanut butter jars as containers). We now only have the milk carton to dispose of.

We liked the commercial yogurt just fine, but made the choice to do it this way so there would be that much less that needs to BE recycled. We use this approach as much as possible to everything we must purchase. If there is a (good) choice between a product that is more sustainably produced/packaged than another, that is the item we will buy. If everyone thought about the end use/disposal at the beginning, we would begin to have less to dispose of.

Guest's picture

From an outside observer, I'm pretty sure you are in 100% agreement with the article. You are Reducing (not buying the yogurt) and Reusing (the glass jar) so recycling is not necessary. That is exactly the authors point. If the author is coming from the wrong angle then so are you because you are in complete agreement.

Guest's picture

I couldn't agree more! Pretty good and inspiring thought. The way we consume is the real problem: we use more then we need, we buy more then we need.

Guest's picture

So true. For years I have tried to resist buying new electronics, and I've been happily using hardware others have decided to recycle. That means I have a second hand TV and a few second hand computers. Even most of our furniture is second hand...

Guest's picture

Use it Up, Wear it Out, Make it Do, or Do Without!

Guest's picture

I agree that recycling is the most-emphasized of the three simply because it's an easy way to feel like you're being "green" without putting in much effort or making any major lifestyle changes. I do think, however, that reduce and reuse are much more closely linked than you give them credit for. I actually wrote yesterday about the awesome power of reusing at my blog (before finding this post through a link at Get Rich Slowly) -- the post is linked in my name if you're interested. In short, reusing is basically reducing at both ends of the product cycle (no new product and no waste), so I think it has the potential to be the most powerful of the 3 R's.

Guest's picture

I agree with all this. It's so easy to feel like you did a good deep by throwing the container in a different trash can. Where I live you can only recycle #1 and #2 plastic, cans, and boxes. I recycle any of it I get but I find it's much better to never get it in the first place. Here are the things I do:

1) Buy milk raw from a local farmer. If this scares you know I've done it for years and am just fine but you can heat it up on the stove first if you want to kill the enzymes and vitamins. I bring the farmer an empty 1 gallon pickle jar in exchange for a full one. No milk jugs needed, we just exchange over and over and over.

2) Make any dairy products you need from the raw milk you bought from the farmer. Making cheese, butter, yogurt, etc is not only easy but funner than you'd thing. Not plastic containers or bags needed if you make it at home.

3) Buy bulk! I am part of a buyers club that purchases all dry goods in bulk. If you use it a lot buy it in bulk! Oatmeal, flour, sugar, nuts, dried fruit, oil, grains, beans, they can all be bought cheaper in bulk and they come is 25 and 50 pound paper bags that are cheaper pound for pound than at the supermarket. Really reduces the plastic bags that are needed for every pound and for carrying it to the car to bring it home.

4) Bake it yourself. I bake my own bread. Even the whole wheat breads at the supermarket are pumped with preservatives and many still have high fructose corn syrup but real home made bread is whole wheat flour, water, yeast, oil, sea salt. It tastes delicious and is good for you. And there is no plastic bag required. It really doesn't take as long as it's made out to. Anything that I can make myself I do, tortillas, chips, fries, bagels, etc.

5) Buy produce packages. Find a produce club that sells weekly packages. Especially organic. Every week I get a box full of produce. No bags just one box.

6) Chickens! I keep 22 chickens in my backyard. They eat every last table scrap I have and in exchange make me eggs! YUM!

7) Compost. I take newspaper, leaves, and waste from the chickens and turn it into thick rich black compost I use in my garden.

Get creative. It's not hard!

Guest's picture

By far, the best article I've read on Wise Bread.
Simple, insightful, powerful.

Guest's picture

The problem with your way of thinking is that not everyone is as crafty as you are and wants to reuse their recyclable items around the home. I work full-time and go to school full time. I have no time for a hobby or gardening so the things I could reuse around my home for crafts get recycled because I have no use for them in my home. That's just how some people are. There is nothing wrong with reusing your items and i'm all for it, for other people, but you can't there is nothing wrong with recycling for those of us that don't reuse.