The 4 R’s of Environmentalism: Reduce

I grew up in the late 80s, early 90s when the idea of protecting our planet was becoming widespread. Before I was in Kindergarden and inspired by PBS, I convinced my mom to stop buying soda that had plastic rings to save the sea animals. My favorite show was Captain Planet, and I would monitored my family closely to make sure they didn’t leave the water on too long or the lights on when they left the room. In the city I lived in, they had public service announcements about reducing water consumption, and I had family members that were interested in alternative energy. I would listen to my grandpa talk about solar panels, and geodesic building vs Earth Homes when we went to visit. Some of the first vocabulary words I remember learning in school were about environmentalism. We had posters up promoting recycling, and the 3 R’s: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, which was very big, even though I lived in what is often considered a Red State; New Mexico.

As I got older, eventually I moved to Portland, OR often considered a Mecca of hippy environmentalism, where you can find public compost bins, and people reuse their showers to water their lawns. I went to a very liberal university, worked and volunteered with environmental groups, and began teaching children. The 3 Rs were ubiquitous. However, I began to feel like something was missing from my beloved 3 Rs. Recycling was lauded on high, and I worked many places where we even taught kids who could barely walk to compost and recycle. Which I am still proud of. But is that enough? Or, better question, is that the best place to start? I don’t mean with children, because I think it is wonderful that children should learn to love the planet we share. But should the first lessons they learn be about recycling?

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. Many of us have heard it practically our whole lives. I propose there should actually be a 4th R: Repair. Reduce, Repair, Reuse, Recycle. Recycling is the last on that list. However, it often seems like it is the most frequently talked about tool in our toolbox, and the most suggested. Recycling should be our last tool of the 4 Rs. So, let’s take a look at the other tools we should try before we get to recycling.

Reduce. Many people like to over look this option because we live in a consumer culture, and this idea has been transformed by corporations and advertisers into something to aspire to but also something unattainable. There are icons we look up to for being “minimalist” but the ways in which many of us are “minimalist” is more fashionable than impactful. That is because it has been presented to us in such a way that we feel that we can’t have quality of life while protecting the planet. This is 100% untrue. In fact, if we slow down just a little, and become more mindful about our choices as consumers, we can improve our quality of life as we reduce the things, the waste, and the impact on the environment.

I have a friend who is an amazing, hilarious, fashion blogger. She is also a caring, wonderful environmentalist. We were talking recently about these types of deliberate choices, and how we can maintain the quality of life that matters to us without sacrificing the ideas and principles that matter to us. Something that has worked for me is to find ways to incrementally change things; find ways to phase out disposable products with lasting ones over time. Two of the big ones I discussed with her that I was pretty happy with, was having switched from bottled soap to unpackaged bar soap from the farmers market and a soap dish in the shower so the soap stays clean. I also switched to a metal safety razor instead of the disposable plastic ones. As I was telling my friend, not only does this keep me from throwing a lot of trash away, but it saves me a lot of money. For example, even if you join a subscription club to have disposable razors mailed to you at a more inexpensive price than picking them up at the grocery store, its still about $100 a year. Another factor is that you have’t sacrificed that quality of life, which is why many people are afraid to start with reduce, and it often gets overlooked. Just by having switched soap and razor, I gained a higher quality soap, I supported the local economy by shopping at the farmers market, and when I shower I feel like I’m pampering myself when I use the nice soap and have a quality shave.

Sometimes we get in a mental rut, and we can’t think of where to begin. How do we find products that last longer? How do we phase disposable products out of our lives? Where do we begin to make the switch? One way that has worked for me in tackling those initial questions was thinking about my grandparents and my great grandparents. When we would go to visit when I was young, they did have some things like I have in my life now: cheap plastic pens from the bank, disposable coffee cans, etc. But, they also had fountain pens with refillable cartridges, and higher quality furniture that lasted from my great grandparents all the way down to me. Sure, those things cost more initially, but they’ll also very likely be something you’re still signing birthday cards with, or sitting on when you’re 100 years old on a Martian Space Colony. And again, we do away with the misconception that reducing and minimizing diminishes our quality of life. We may not be buying as many cheap futons that break down every year, or as many disposable pens that we simply toss out, but instead we invest a little in items in our life that last, that we care about, and in some ways bring an element of aestheticism and art instead of simply just functionality.

Reducing your consumption doesn’t have to make you feel like some stereotype of a dirty hippy from Portlandia eating out of the dumpster. You can feel as glamorous as a character on Mad Men and take some time to pamper yourself. Reduce doesn’t have to be something we frame as “less”, it can be something we frame as “higher quality”. And not only does the earth deserve that, but don’t we?

Coming Next- The 4 R’s of Environmentalism: Repair

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