I hate the idea of recycling. Recycling is the participation medal of environmental activism. And it’s obfuscating more effective behavior to change the decline of our planet. 

During a recent environmental conversation, a friend of mine opined how much he cared about the environment. When I asked what he did to show he cared about the environment, he quipped, “I recycle.” 

It is my experience that most people are content to toss a few household items into a green bin and consider their environmental duty fulfilled. Unfortunately, since only 9% of recyclable items actually fulfill their destiny, recycling should be a last resort.

I pointed out to my friend (gently, I hope) that sporadic recycling might not merit a pat on the back. It may have been effective years ago, but now we need to aspire to bigger gestures. It’s a delicate balance to champion one’s good intentions, but it may also be time to start talking about better ways to reduce our environmental impact.  

According to the Pew Research Center, “three quarters of Americans are concerned about the environment,” but 63% of people only make an effort to help the environment in their daily lives “some of the time.”

The good news is that most people care enough to recycle. But we can’t let ourselves off the hook too easily. All the half-hearted recycling in the world doesn’t negate the fact that most people still get plastic bags at the grocery and keep disposable water bottles at their desks. We know there is a problem, but we only take action as long as it isn’t too inconvenient. 

Let’s work together to do more than just passively care about the environment. Below are some practical, helpful ways we can reduce waste. They start with the easiest behaviors and progress to behaviors that may require more of a commitment. Spoiler: recycling didn’t make the list.

  • Get reusable bags for the grocery. This should be a no brainer by now. In fact, I’ve visited other countries where plastic bags aren’t even distributed. But in the US, it pains me to see how many people take dozens of plastic bags home (and double bagging—I cringe). I forget mine sometimes, too, so ask for paper.
  • For the love, skip the straw. This is the cause de jour of 2018. I’m happy to see airlines, theme parks, and restaurants ix-nay the straws. Decline straws in restaurants, or get a glass set of your own! 
  • No more paper products. I’ll let you keep the TP, but how about ditching paper towels and napkins? Cloth napkins and towels do the same job, plus it’s way more cost effective. We keep an emergency paper towel roll on hand—but we haven’t bought paper products in a year.
  • Replace plastic in the kitchen. There are reusable products for almost everything now (including Q-tips, but I’ll let you make your own decision on that). I love my Lunchskins washable baggies instead of plastic sandwich bags. And instead of plastic wrap, we use beeswrap to cover our food.
  • Cancel junk mail. This one is just kind of annoying, but I hate getting so many worthless catalogues in the mail. Even though it takes five minutes of my time, I call the number on the back and request that they stop sending junk to my house. Aren’t there better ways to market, yet?
  • No. More. Plastic water bottles. Plastic water bottles are EVERYWHERE. And I get it, sometimes you can’t avoid them. Especially when you are out and about and need hydration. But for the times you can, use a reusable water bottle. These are cute!
  • Eat less meat. To make one hamburger could require over 400 gallons of water. If you are a carnivore, try Meatless Mondays. Or maybe keep meat to dinner only. Despite what the food industry says, you do not need meat at every meal to stay healthy. In fact, reducing red meat is probably better for your health! We’ve phased out meat for about 75% of our meals—and I’ve found plenty of delicious recipes my skeptical husband enjoys! 
  • Offset your carbon footprint. I love to travel, but I also know emissions from cars and planes are terrible for the environment. The best course of action would be to stop traveling, but the second-best option is offsetting your carbon footprint. Donate to organizations that specialize in reforestation or other offsetting projects.
  • Go solar. Luckily, here in sunny Florida, this one was a no-brainer for us. Solar energy is less expensive over time, it powers our home exactly the same as electricity, and it increases property value. And, of course, it reduces our reliance on electricity. Get off the grid!
  • Shop ethically. This takes a little more dedication and moolah to accomplish. Not to mention, it isn’t always easy to determine which companies are ethical. Most clothing (especially cotton) requires large amounts of water. Plus, many garments are made cheaply in other countries with unsafe labor practices. Purchase clothing from companies that promote sustainable production and ethical labor practices. If you can afford it, this is a great cause to support. If you can’t, at least avoid fast fashion.

Five years ago, I didn’t even recycle. I was literally too lazy to get a different bin to sort through our waste. 

Now, I have implemented all of the best practices outlined above. I don’t always do all of them 100% of the time, but I try to hold myself accountable to a high standard. If I am too quick to congratulate myself on “being green,” I’m afraid I might become complacent. It will take all of us working together consistently to reverse the impact we have made.

The bad news is, I won’t be handing out any medals for recycling. The good news is, making real environmental change doesn’t have to be hard. It just takes purposeful action. 

This Earth Month, I challenge you to make at least one change as a contribution to our planet. 

And yeah, I guess you should still recycle.

Have another suggestion? I’d love to hear it!