Dear Umbra,

If recycling requires energy to turn one’s discarded waste into usable products, and “climate solutions take precedence over garbage-production concerns,” as you wrote in June, why are we so focused on recycling and not on reducing our initial consumption? Surely this should be at the forefront of the individual consumer’s attempts to help the environment, shouldn’t it?

Consumed with concern,
Martin Grist
Bangkok, Thailand

Dearest Martin,

Yes. It should. Everybody: reduce your consumption. Now.

Let there be less.

Photo: iStockphoto

I’ve thumped the reduction drum before, but it’s always worth another thump. (Also, this gives me an excuse to compliment you on your exquisite last name. Would you like to be our mascot?)

Reducing consumption is not a topic that’s popular with people who try to sell you things, or politicians who want you to shop to keep the country great, or neighbors who want to engage in look-what-I-bought competitions. It is not a topic that’s popular with most Americans, who generate 4.5 pounds of garbage per person per day. To get a sense of just how obscene that is, consider this: in 2003, Americans tossed out 236 million tons of solid waste. The people in your current home of Thailand, by comparison, chucked a mere 14.4 million tons. Thailand has about one-quarter the population of the U.S. — but only one-sixteenth the trash. Yikes.

Cutting back on our consumption is central to the creation of anything close to a sustainable, closed-loop waste cycle. In the words of the U.S. EPA, “reduction actually prevents the generation of waste in the first place, so it is the most preferred method of waste management and goes a long way toward protecting the environment.” I added the emphasis there, because it answers your very question.

In fact, the EPA and Environment Canada agree that “reduce” is the most important of the Three R’s — even though recycle usually hogs the spotlight. Note to naysayers: that doesn’t mean recycling is unimportant. It means reduce, reuse, and recycle are all vital, because no matter how much we cut our consumption, we will still consume some things — and then have to figure out how to handle our waste. (The Canadians even have a fourth R, which stands for “recover.” Environment Canada advises citizens to “recover energy from wastes that cannot be used for something else.” Sage advice, though they admit that it’s geared more toward industry than the general public.)

Sadly, in this world of Nifty mops and Zippy sandwich containers and things that are made to break, it’s hard to convince people to buy — and therefore throw away — less stuff. But according to the EPA, more than 6,000 communities have “pay as you throw” programs that charge residents for each unit of trash they toss. And some industries have made progress. Remember those silly big cardboard boxes that CDs used to come in? And it seems that two-liter plastic bottles are 25 percent lighter today than they were 30 years ago. Small steps, but we’ll take them.

So what can you do? Write to companies whose products you admire but whose packaging gives you shivers. Buy in bulk. Buy products with little or no packaging. Make thoughtful shopping lists, based on need, to avoid snatching things up spontaneously at the store. Shun anything that’s marketed as handy, disposable, or one-time use in favor of more permanent solutions. And above all, don’t get caught up in the Stuff Race. In this case, less is truly more.

Repeatedly,
Umbra