Reduce, Reuse, Decompose

I remember 4th grade science class like it were yesterday.  “Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle” (the three R’s) were the three ways we could keep our planet smiley, happy, and shiny.  AND, if we did it better than the other classes for the next month, we’d get a pizza party.  I was sold.

Chapter 5 of The Carbon Efficient City discusses the role of conservation and recycling as a component to creating a sustainable city.  I’m still sold that we should focus on reducing excessive consumption and waste.  Reusing is great, easy, economically beneficial on a macro and a micro-level.

Unforunately, as I’ve grown older and more cynical, I’ve developed some concerns about the last of the R’s: Recycling.  Reports like this one have made me question whether a complex, resource intensive system of making our packaging and containers recyclable, then sorting, processing, and redistributing the recycling our packaging and container materials is not cost-effective.

Consumers don’t want to have to rinse our their recyclables.  They don’t want to think about sorting them, worry about what goes in what bin.  They have plenty in their own lives to stress over, whether they are eco-focused or not.  Asking them to play a time and thought-intensive role in conservation is, at best, wishful thinking.

Enter compostables.  Sure, they have their issues–the potent and widespread odor of industrial composting facilities; the challenges of managing composting for larger businesses and organizations.  However, these can be overcome as technology and innovation develop new collection and processing techniques.  Compostable packaging, flatware, containers, and other materials are improving rapidly and becoming more widespread.

Imagine if 90% of all packaging were compostable.  We could eliminate the recycling bin, the sorting, the rinsing, the processing.  We’d have a small bin for waste, and everything else would go in the compost bin.  No sorting.  No rinsing.  It’s all getting decomposed.  We’d have low-cost fertilizer for Washington’s agricultural industry.  We’d reduce the proliferation of 1000-year half-life plastics floating in our waterways.

It’s not a perfect answer, nor one we could adopt in the immediate future.  But down the road, it might be the best way forward to reduce, reuse, and recycle.

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