The 4 R’s of Sustainable Waste Management #1

graphic from epa.gov

As Extension Master Gardener volunteer educators, we are dedicated to investing in our local communities by teaching sustainable landscape and sound horticulture practices. We are also passionate about sharing the many ways each of us can make a positive impact on environmental quality! Two speakers from our local Solid Waste Alternatives Advisory Committee recently provided the Piedmont Master Gardeners with an overview of the recycling, composting, and other sustainable waste management programs available in our area.  As a result, we are even MORE inspired to share information on this BIG topic. Here is the first in a series of articles on “The 4 R’s of Sustainable Waste Management”.

Everyone is familiar with the phrase “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” coined from the first Earth Day celebration in 1970. It describes the main methods consumers and industries can use to dispose of waste in an environmentally responsible manner and to conserve the Earth’s precious natural resources. As gardeners, we affirm the 4 R’s slogan: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, and Rot (i.e. Compost). Let’s start with the first strategy: Reduce.

Reduce consumption and unnecessary waste. According to the EPA, the average American generates about 4.5 lbs. of waste per day, one of the highest rates in the world. Although an indirect measure of our consumption, it definitely demonstrates the magnitude of the problem! The most effective way to reduce waste is not to create it in the first place. When buying any product, think about the raw materials and energy that went into making and transporting it – and the waste it will generate.

Do an at-home waste audit. By tracking the amount of waste produced by your household, you will become more aware of habits and practices that contribute to your waste stream and how you can change them to reduce the amount of waste we produce.

Buy only what you need.  Determine your true needs and avoid impulse buying. Your choices about what you buy and where you shop can make the world a better place.

Consider the quantity and packaging. We live in a disposable age. While this may be convenient, it generates lots of trash. Buying food in bulk often means less packaging, but be sure you need the full quantity you’re buying, otherwise it is wasteful. Avoid purchasing products with excessive packaging or packaging that is not compostable or recyclable.  For example, try not to buy food items packaged in polystyrene or Styrofoam, which have been banned in some communities due to their environmental and human health impacts.

For more on this topic, take a look at Recyclable vs. Biodegradable vs. Compostable – Cracking the Code. Tips on reducing food waste will be shared in another article.

Think before you discard, then buy recyclables. The longer you use an item without replacing it, the better.  Before discarding any item, ask yourself these questions:

  • Can it be reused?
  • Is it repairable?
  • Is it recyclable?

Remember, you’re not truly recycling until you buy recycled goods!  By purchasing recycled products, you are helping to complete the recycling loop.

Reduce reliance on plastic. Want to make an impact for the better? Join the international Plastic Free July Challenge. As a first step, always have reusable tote bags with you and carry a reusable water bottle.

Reduce your consumption of essential resources and save money. Turn lights off when you are not in the room, unplug electronics when not in use, and fix drippy faucets. Check out our local Better World Betty’s Home Menu for more ways to reduce your household’s environmental footprint. Also, view our Environmental Steward card for advice on sustainable living practices.

Other ways to reduce waste. If you are planning a special event, being prepared will help to reduce waste. Take time to consult the Special Event Best Practice Guide and click here for more tips on reducing waste in your home and garden.

All of us have the power to reduce our waste and trash dramatically. Tiny changes in our habits can add up to making a real difference. As Extension Master Gardeners we strive for stewardship and sustainability through horticulture and environmental best practices. We are committed to our communities and to improving the lives of people as well as the land and environment which sustains us. Less waste leads to fewer disposal facilities which leads to fewer environmental issues. Check back for next weeks’ topic: Reuse.

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