The Forgotten R

We’ve all heard the phrase “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle”. These three R’s are supposed to be the holy trinity of saving the environment. Unfortunately, some of them get a little less attention than the others. “Recycle” is definitely the star of the show. If you went up to someone on the street and asked them if they reduce, reuse, and recycle, they would probably talk about how much they recycle. Actually they would probably ignore you, but you get my point. Most people rarely think about the other two R’s. “Reuse” is getting a little more popular these days. Fortunately, I see lots of people moving from buying water in plastic bottles all the time to refilling one reusable water bottle. Metal straws and bamboo toothbrushes are gaining in popularity too.

But why don’t we hear about reducing as much? I think part of the problem is virtue signaling. It’s hard to show off how little you buy. If people can’t show others they care about the environment, what’s the point? It’s easy to show off a metal straw, a reusable grocery bag, and a metal water bottle. It’s slightly less easy, but still possible, to be very clear about the fact that you recycle. But how do you show off reducing? How can you show other people you care about the environment by not buying stuff? But virtue signaling is only half the problem. The other half is our culturally ingrained appetite for more stuff. 

Companies, whether they care about the environment or not, still want you to buy stuff, and to get people to buy stuff, they have to run ads. Unfortunately, we Americans have a bit of a soft spot for ads. As much as we claim to hate them, there’s no denying the fact that they work. U.S. companies spent more than $75 billion on advertising and PR in 2018.

We’re constantly having the latest and the greatest pushed on us. We have to have the newest phone with the best features and as soon as something comes out that’s slightly newer with slightly better features, we have to have it. Unfortunately, this also works with “green” products. 

For example, let’s say someone only drinks bottled water. Every time they’re thirsty, they open up a new bottle and just throw the old one away in the trash. Then they read an article, see a video, or talk to someone that makes them realize what they’re doing is terrible for the environment. So, instead they buy a reusable plastic bottle from the store so they don’t have to keep throwing away bottles. Progress! After a few weeks, they find out about a new bottle that’s even better for the environment because it’s made out of metal. A few weeks after that, a new water bottle comes out that’s made from even more sustainable materials, and it’s biodegradable! You can see where this is going. What happened to the metal water bottle, the plastic water bottle before that, and the flimsy plastic bottles from the bottled water before that? It’s probably all in a landfill.

The best solution would have simply been to keep one of the plastic bottles from the bottled water they had already bought, and just keep refilling it. I know those bottles are flimsy and would probably break, but at least wait until it breaks before buying an upgrade. Then get the latest and greatest in environmentally friendly water bottles, and use it like crazy until it breaks!

We have a system in the United States of always wanting to progress to the next thing, the new thing, the cool thing. Unfortunately, even well intentioned and environmentally minded people are subject to this as well. The cycle starts with advertising, which is entirely developed to make us feel inadequate in some way. Advertisers want to make you feel deficient so you think the only thing that can make you whole again is to buy whatever they’re selling. They’re good at what they do too. All that money being spent in the advertising industry draws top talent from the fields of marketing and psychology. These people know how to get in your head and make you feel incomplete. They’re so good, that even if an advertisement doesn’t work on you, it just has to work on your friends, coworkers, or neighborhood. Pretty soon, you’ll be the only one in your group without the thing they’re selling. Then it’s only a matter of time before you buy it.

If you don’t feel the need to buy the latest smartphone because the one you have is perfectly adequate, but all of your friends buy it, then you’re out of the loop. In our society it has become culturally normal to exclude or make fun of people who don’t have the latest new thing. I’ve personally experienced this by not being allowed in a group chat with friends because I was one of two people in the group who didn’t have an iPhone. It has something to do with my texts showing up in a green bubble. While that sounds like insanity, it’s actually well-crafted brain-washing, and that’s exactly what big brands want. These are the same brands that spend billions of dollars every year to make us think we’re not good enough, to make us think we need them to make us better. Then, as soon as you buy the thing they’re selling, they almost immediately start trying to make you feel inadequate for owning that because now there’s this new thing that’s even better. 

Having the latest and greatest has become so ingrained in our minds that a lot of people don’t even realize how terrible it is for the environment. Some people think they’re saving the planet because they drive a Prius and use a metal straw, but they buy the latest gadget whenever it hits store shelves and just toss the old one in the landfill. The worst part is, even if you don’t buy into this hedonic treadmill of constantly chasing the shiny new object, it still affects you. The way we just throw out old gadgets in this country and constantly pump out new ones is ravaging our natural resources and contributing to global warming. 

So, what’s the solution? What if we just stopped buying stuff? Obviously, you shouldn’t stop grocery shopping and buying things you need to live. However, I bet you’ll be just fine without the new 3D 4K cloud-based flat-screen wireless bluetooth wearable micro iThing. You’ll live without it. Just use the one you already have. Yes, I’m talking about the one that looks kinda grubby. It’s got your fingerprints all over it. It’s so slow (despite being so much ridiculously faster than gadgets made 10 years before it), and yes, the resolution could be better. It could be faster, shinier, and sleeker. Maybe it’s got bad gas mileage, or it’s hard to use. But I’m willing to bet it could last longer. I’m willing to bet you could keep it going. Maybe instead of buying the cool new thing, you could take care of what you have. Take some time to clean it and tune it up. See how it works then. You might even be surprised at how much you like it. The planet will thank you for it, and I haven’t even mentioned how much money you’ll save.

Big companies definitely won’t thank you for it though. Whether they claim to be environmentally friendly or not, they’ll try everything they can to get you to buy more stuff. They’ll try to get in your head about why you, and what you have, aren’t good enough. Just don’t listen! Keep driving that old car that’s on its last legs. Keep using that laptop that randomly dies sometimes. Keep wearing that jacket you had to sew up when it got torn a little bit. This is the way to save the planet. Keep reusing and recycling, but remember to reduce.

Save your money, save your planet, and don’t give in to the advertising. Don’t care if you “look lame” because of the car you drive or the clothes you wear. That’s just the mentality advertisers have spent billions on pumping into our society. People may see you using something and say “oh, you need a new (insert unnecessary new thing here)”, and if you don’t, just tell them, “no, I don’t actually”. If anything they probably don’t need half of the stuff they have. 

When you do buy stuff, buy it used. Broken things can be fixed. Old things can be made to look new. If you’re worried that you’ll be judged by your friends, just explain to them how you’re helping the environment. 

Let’s say you have an old car. You know that you’re going to have to buy another (hopefully used) car at some point. So, you think: “if I’m going to have to get another car anway, why not just get it now?” The answer is simple. The longer you’re able to hold off, the longer you’re able to make use of a perfectly usable car, and the further you delay your purchase of another car. All this means you can actually buy a better car when you do buy one. 

For example, if it’s 2020 and you buy a car before your current one’s lifetime is up, maybe you can buy a 2010 model of the car you want for $10,000, and the 2015 model is $20,000. But if you keep driving that car for another 5 years, the 2010 model will be only $5,000 (because it’s now 15 years old) and the 2015 model will be $10,000 and the 2020 model will be $20,000. So, just by waiting it out, you can save thousands of dollars on the same car you would’ve gotten had you bought the car when you first thought about doing it. That’s called delayed gratification. 

So here’s the list of some of the benefits of reducing: experience delayed gratification, save money, and save the planet. It’s a win, win, win! The only losers in this scenario are the big companies trying to brainwash you into thinking you’re not enough and you don’t have enough. Don’t listen to them, and don’t forget the most important of the three R’s: reduce!

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

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