When people first get started trying to reduce their waste, they usually think about buying less stuff that they’ll eventually have to throw away. But as I’ve started to learn over time, responsible disposal is only part of the equation. Even if you recycle, compost or reuse whatever it is you bought, it doesn’t cancel out the fact that a lot of resources went into producing it in the first place.
For example, paper is a renewable resource, but that doesn’t mean composting your paper towels completely offsets the trees that were cut down and all the other energy that went into producing them. I’ve also read that if you have to choose, buying something that is made from recycled materials is better than buying something that is recyclable.
This week’s challenge was further educating myself on this topic, which is known as upstream waste. Here is a short list of what I learned:
- Paper products: Climate Fwd. was on the same wavelength again this week with its article on paper towels. Yes they are compostable, but it takes a long time for a newly planted tree to mature and absorb as much carbon dioxide as its more mature relatives. We bought bamboo paper towels a while ago, and my mother-in-law gave me some handmade cloth napkins for my birthday, so using these items more often will definitely help. We have not made the switch from Kleenex or toilet paper, but will look for recycled paper products in these categories moving forward.
- Plastic: Plastic straws, bags, cups and other single-use plastic gets a lot of media attention when it ends up in the ocean, air, and virtually everywhere in between. It’s gotten so much attention, in fact, that in surveys people (incorrectly) say it has a bigger impact on climate change than fossil fuels. But plastic isn’t entirely evil, and in some cases can be the better choice. For example, a paper bag has to be used multiple times to have the same carbon footprint as a plastic bag used once. And glass is much heavier and therefore takes more fuel to transport than plastic. When buying single-use plastics, I make sure to opt for the recyclable ones (clear 1, 2 and 5 plastics where I live) and avoid the others (6, 7 and black/opaque plastic regardless of number).
- Almond milk: We switched from cow’s milk to non-dairy milk a few months ago in an effort to reduce our consumption of animal products. Like many people, we landed on almond milk as our preferred alternative. But then this article came out about the massive amounts of water required to process almonds, and that the bees that pollinate them have been dying by the billions. So it’s back to soy milk we go.
- Food: When we first started composting, I thought that was the answer to all the food that went uneaten in my house. But more recently, I’ve learned that stopping food waste long before it hits the compost bin is the ultimate solution. I joined a local food waste Facebook group where people give away food that they don’t like or have too much of before it goes bad. I also learned about programs in my county that donate food to food shelves or farms as animal feed so it doesn’t go to waste.
- Clothes: Sure, I can donate, sell or recycle my clothes when I am done wearing them. But it’s better to buy high-quality, synthetic-free clothing in the first place, which is produced more responsibly and will last longer, making any added price worth it. Brands like Alternative Apparel, People Tree, Patagonia and DL 1961 jeans are some to look for. Avoid H&M, Zara and other fast-fashion retailers at all costs!
What other factors play into your purchase decisions other than how you will dispose of them when they’ve reached the end of their life cycle?