According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the average American throws out 1,600 pounds of garbage annually. That means that a household of four sends the weight of two average cars to the landfill each year, wasting a lot of valuable resources and space. In addition, many of the things we throw out contaminate our soil, water and air.
It may feel like this problem is too big to resolve, but if everyone made some small changes to help conserve resources, we could leave a healthier planet for the generations to come.
Get in the Right Mindset
There's an old saying that goes, "Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without." Now, the environmental movement has coined the modern equivalent, known as "The Three R's: Reduce, Reuse and Recycle."
Reduce means to consider how we can cut back on the things we use. It requires us to rethink some of our assumptions: that new is better than old, that bigger is better than smaller and that convenience is always important.
Reuse means to think before you discard something. Can you use it again for the same or another purpose? For example, instead of discarding the glass jars that contained spaghetti sauce, consider how you can reuse them to store food in the refrigerator or dry goods in the cabinet.
Recycle means to dispose of specific items (glass, metal, paper and plastic) according to the particular arrangements in your area. You need to learn the local requirements: what is recyclable in your area, whether you have to separate recycling into categories and whether you have curbside recycling pickup or need to take recycling to the local facility.
Here are some easy changes you can make.
Stop the Junk Mail
Do you get a lot of junk mail? Does it make you angry but you just deal with it? Do you discard it in the trash or in recycling? Most mail is from virgin paper, straight from the trees, not recycled paper. In addition, the paper is bleached, sending tons of chemicals into our waterways. Finally, throwing paper into the trash adds to our overflowing landfills. Even when we recycle unwanted mail, it still takes energy, water and chemicals to convert into recycled paper. To cut back on your family's junk mail, sign up for Direct Mail Association’s Mail Preference Service at www.dmachoice.org/dma/member/regist.action or at www.directmail.com/directory/mail_preference/.
Skip the Paper Towels
Consider replacing paper towels with washable cloths or rags at home. Paper towels are generally made with virgin paper, which is harvested and bleached, using a lot of energy, water and chemicals. And most paper towels are thrown in the trash, along with the plastic wrapping, which goes to the landfill. Instead of paper towels, you can use washable cloth towels. You can either buy dishtowels, or make them by cutting up old T-shirts, pajamas and towels. Keep a box of them in high-need areas so they’re easy to grab when you need them. The cost of laundering cloth towels is far less, financially and environmentally, than buying rolls of paper towels. Consider switching from paper to cloth napkins as well.
Reuse Scrap Paper
If you use a computer, you have probably printed something you didn’t really need. Or you may need something, such as driving directions, just for a short while. Reuse the clean side of paper to load your printer for home use. You can also save the scrap paper for your children to draw on—or cut it up to keep as note sheets by the phone.
Avoid Commercial Packaging
Many of the items we buy for convenience consist mostly of packaging. For food items such as individual juice boxes, packaged lunches, frozen dinners and individual bags of chips, much of the cost is in packaging, which will end up in the landfill. For children’s lunches, consider using a thermos or water bottle for their drinks. Instead of a prepackaged lunch, make your own healthier and cheaper lunch and pack it in a reusable plastic container.
These little changes can add up to big savings, both for your pocketbook and the environment.
To get a better understanding of the connection between our consumer society, the global economy and environmental problems, watch the 20-minute video “The Story of Stuff” at www.storyofstuff.com.
Karen Sokal-Gutierrez M.D., M.P.H. Pediatrician
Parenting advice is given as a suggestion only. We recommend you also consult your healthcare provider.