All this Ho-Ho-Ho is making me think about R-R-R. Reduce. Reuse. Recycle. True, that sounds pretty Grinchy. The holidays do seem like the epitome of consumerism, with $1.1 trillion in retail sales expected in the period between November and January. Whether you have a healthy planet in the back of your mind, or you live in a small space, or you simply don’t want more stuff…the season of stuff can be overwhelming.
Some products are increasingly short-lived, and the packaging things come in is harder to recycle these days, and even things we recycle or donate in good conscience can end up in landfills.
Reduce comes first for good reason. A nice gift certificate for dinner out, movies, a massage or a car detail doesn’t take up cabinet space and supports our local economy.
Feeling generous? Up it to a weekend away, a yoga studio membership, or an experience like race car driving or hot air ballooning.
Try to buy for longevity, too. I recently had to replace a name-brand, moderate-priced laptop after only two years. The battery died and a call to the manufacturer revealed they no longer make the batteries. Knockoffs my husband tried didn’t work and hopefully will be returned. The laptop is now scrap. Only after six months of frustrating calls to various warranty and support staff were we able to save a similarly new flat screen TV whose remote was no longer made, which meant we couldn’t even use another remote to diagnose the problem.
Electronics really should have some reliability and longevity standards attached to them, both due to cost and the negative effects of e-waste. Buying more should not be the only option here.
Reusable things like the really nice drip-free water and coffee containers also help the end user reduce disposables, but do a little research first.
What fits in their car cups? What can be thrown in a purse without leaking? What is easy to clean? Is an attached lid better for kids who might otherwise lose things? Even in the market of “environmental” gifts there is stuff that is irritating enough to make it destined for the trash (see below) sooner rather than later.
Be realistic, too. This year I sprung for reusable cups and plates for camping, because we have access to washing in our beloved trailer. I would never wish this on a family weekend tent camping or on snack parents at sporting events, though, unless they really wanted to.
A potential to be explored for reuse is shipping containers. Reusable pallets, drums and containers are already used in industry, though training to avoid loss is necessary. I wonder if shippers of consumer goods have thought about deposit boxes or reusable cartons for online retail?
How can all those Amazon boxes be used a few times more before they are recycled?
Ah, recycling. As locals Jonathan Kraut and Councilman Bob Kellar have written lately, recycling is really not the guilt-assuaging panacea it was sold to be. In the electronics realm, the cheapest (i.e. most common) way to recycle is for things to be sent overseas.
Tom Risen of U.S. News and World Report stated in 2016 that the U.S. was the only developed nation that didn’t ban exports of toxic discarded electronics. According to the United Nations only 16% of the world’s e-waste was recycled by government-approved processors in 2014.
Those who cut corners end up having material go to countries where scrap pickers and their children are exposed to toxic levels of metals and make only spare change in the process.
NPR recently reported that as much as 85% of goods donated to donation centers get landfilled. Though 75% of American trash is recyclable, only about 30% actually is, for reasons ranging from cross contamination to equipment capabilities to market demand. There are some bright spots, like manufacturers (Apple, Samsung, Pategonia) that take back old products for credit, but more work is needed.
We need good product design and smart supply chains. We should take a second and think what we really need before hitting the checkout line. I certainly get convenience and sanitation concerns as a busy working parent, but buy for quality and buy fewer disposables when you can.
Lastly, view your recycling bin not as magic but as partial mitigation. Know how and where to best get rid of your unwanted stuff, which is, realistically, likely to be trashed. Support legislative and industry improvements in all these things.
Christmas – and our day-to-day lives – shouldn’t leave us feeling like guilty grinches.
Maria Gutzeit is a chemical engineer, business owner, elected official, and mom living in Santa Clarita. “Democratic Voices” appears Tuesdays and rotates among several local Democrats.