Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Beyond Recycling
distributed 5/26/06 - ©2006

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Shirley Perkins, of Edina, Minnesota. Her generous support helps make this publication possible.

A few months ago, I was talking to a member of Denver's City Council about one of my pet peeves -- the dumping of multiple varieties of telephone books at our homes and businesses. (See an earlier Notes on that theme, Extortion as Good Business.)

The council member took my comments and complaints seriously, and he provided a well-grounded answer about why the city can't prohibit this absurd and wasteful practice. At the end of the discussion, he commented, "At least we now accept phone books in the curbside recycling bins."

I am glad that, every time those 10+ pounds of yellow pages are unloaded at our doors, we can now recycle them without having to find a specialized and short-term collection center. But my conversation with the council member reminds me that recycling is the very last of the options to be considered by a responsible and ecological citizen.

For many years, we've heard of the "3 Rs" -- reduce, reuse, recycle. Some folk have added a fourth R to the start of the list -- refuse. Recently, I've used two more Rs of a different character -- restore and resist -- to expand our consciousness beyond consumer goods. These six words provide concise and solid guidance for our shopping, and for our community behavior.

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The four Rs that are at the core of this list are best seen as a sequence, and not as a collection of independent options. The most important and fruitful options should be considered first, and then the other steps taken as needed.

  • The first and best choice is to REFUSE, or "just say no". My goal with the phone books is to find a way of rejecting the things in the first place. If we all had a way to "opt out" of those deliveries, then far less directories would be printed, and the savings in trees, water, energy and chemicals would be dramatic.

    The same principle holds with many other choices. Don't buy or accept bottled water. Refuse to go on a business trip when a phone call could accomplish the same purposes. Renounce meat and choose a vegetarian diet. Don't upgrade your computer just because some marketing campaign tells you that it is obsolete.

  • If you can't refuse, then it is time to REDUCE. Minimize your impact by using as little of a product or resource as possible. Reduce your driving to save gas and clean the air. Take short showers and adopt other water-saving practices. If going meatless is too big a step, then cut back your consumption of animal protein. Cancel subscriptions to magazines that you don't read, and get many of your books from a library. Turn off lights, and use energy efficient bulbs.

  • Once you have reduced your consumption, then REUSE what you have. Wash plastic sandwich bags and use them again and again. Use canvas shopping bags over and over. Use the blank side of paper for notepads and scratch paper. Reuse decent clothing year after year, even if it is a bit out our style. Fix broken things, instead of replacing them.

  • And finally, clear at the end of the list, as the last consideration -- once you have refused and reduced and reused in every way that you can -- then RECYCLE what is left over. Instead of sending things to the dump, make sure that the components are appropriately reclaimed for productive use. Recycle vegetable waste by composting. Recycle all your newspapers, bottles and cans. Send old computer equipment to places that will dismantle and dispose of it properly. Donate old clothes and household items to Goodwill.
As I said, the other two Rs on my list deal with different kinds of behaviors. They extend our awareness and action beyond the home or office. In that sense, they are helpful in making our whole lives more conscientious and caring, and in bringing creative change.
  • RESTORE calls us to go beyond steps that reduce our impact on the planet, and to proactively do things that heal the damage that we cause -- individually and collectively. Plant trees to counterbalance the loss of trees from paper production, and to help soak up carbon dioxide. Clean up a stream. Join in efforts to expand and improve wildlife habitat. Support government efforts to clean up toxic waste dumps.

  • RESIST reminds us of our obligation to challenge the systems which waste and destroy the planet. Speak out against the perverse values of consumerism. Protest political decisions which exploit both people and natural resources. Advocate for fair trade, and support small businesses. Write letters to the editor, speak up in church, and challenge policies at the office. Talk to your neighbors, vote for shareholder resolutions, and buy your food from local farmers.

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Many churches use recycling projects as a helpful way to introduce ecological stewardship to their members. That can be a wonderful starting point, and a visible expression of commitment.

But if that single "R" is seen as an adequate expression of environmental concern and responsibility, then the message is not complete. Recycling is what we do after we have refused, reduced and reused. It is an activity that parallels our efforts to resist and restore.

If your church doesn't have an active recycling program, then that's an essential step to take. And then, once your members have started to become conscious of their responsibility for "stuff," be sure to educate and advocate for the other five Rs, too.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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