I recently learned about the magic that occurs when consumers are asked to pay a small fee for a shopping bag. Being forced to pay a nickel at checkout counters in Washington DC resulted in a whopping 60% decrease in bag use. (Source: Washington Post). This got me thinking about the power of #ThinkingTwice before buying the things that we put into those shopping bags.
Getting to zero waste in our homes, offices and communities is not just about recycling, deciding what goes into the blue bin and what goes into the green bin. It’s not about not buying anything (which of course, is hard to do in our modern society). It’s not about minimalism (admirable but out of reach for most). And it’s not about shifting purchases to ‘experiences’. (One airplane trip can wipe out all the environmental ‘gains’.) Getting to zero waste is about mindfulness — it’s about getting into the habit to #ThinkTwice before we buy.
#ThinkTwice By Asking Questions
Getting to zero waste is about all the questions we can ask when deciding what to buy, whether to buy at all, how to get the most out of the products we do buy, and how to ensure that all the things we buy are responsibly disposed of. Many of these questions refer to the eco-impacts that occur over the full lifecycle of the product, starting with how materials are sourced and ending with where an items ends up.
#ThinkTwice About Buying Something You Don’t Need
Do I Need to Buy This? Generating waste starts with the decisions one makes about whether to buy at all. Every product uses resources and creates waste during its manufacture. According to the Institute for Local Self Reliance, behind every ton of municipal solid waste lies 71 tons of industrial waste generated from sources such as manufacturing, mining, and agriculture.
So, buying mindfully is about using your personal ‘resource budget’ to buy what’s most important, and filter out the impulse purchases that may feel good at the time but could wind up making you feel guilty later on.
Buying mindfully is about trying to better understand why you’re buying something, and if you’re buying for albeit important human needs like status or identification rather than necessity, deciding whether those needs are worth the environmental and resource investment, or can be satisfied in some other way.
#ThinkTwice About Buying New
As someone more pithy than I reminds us, ‘The greenest product is the one that already exists.’ So, once you’ve decided you really need something, cut down on the ‘invisible waste’ associated with sourcing and manufacturing that item by deciding whether you can buy it used instead of new, or if you can simply gain access to the same type of item through a means other than purchase
We don’t need to buy every thing we use new! There are alternatives that can even help us find potentially higher quality items than what’s commonly available today, like borrowing it from a friend, or asking someone in your gift community to give you one for free. Of course, you can also buy it used at a thrift or consignment shop, or online at Craigslist.org or eBay.com.
I am excited about a new website called NextDoor.com. It’s like a Linkedin for neighbors. I’ve already asked my own ‘Next Door’ neighbors if I could borrow a book I couldn’t get at my New York Public Library branch, while others have asked to borrow my bike. An alternative, some buildings and neighborhoods have created their own listserves.
#ThinkTwice about Buying the Flimsy and Disposable
How Long Will This Last? When you shop, look for quality items that can last a long time. Look for durable items that can be used by multiple users over their lifetime, and can be repaired or repurposed when they are no longer useful to you.
In a move to combat product obsolescence, the French government recently passed a law requiring local manufacturers to offer a two year warranty on most products, and to disclose the number of years they will make spare parts available.
Get familiar with the term ‘intensity of use’, a strategy for getting the most use of all the energy and materials that went into making, transporting and using products. Ask if the products you buy are designed to withstand the ‘wear and tear’ of not only your own use, but potentially multiple others who might share it. Power drills are typically designed to be used by one person for an average of 6 hours over their lifetimes. But with the advent of tool lending libraries, manufacturers will need to make those drills not only last longer, but stand up to the test of multiple DIYers.
#ThinkTwice About Buying Virgin
How Was This Made? Consider the kinds of materials that are used. Waste-aware consumers ask: Is this product made from recycled materials? And its corollary: Is this product recyclable in my community?
Using recycled materials often saves energy and resources over new. Recycling items nearby creates less greenhouse gas emissions than transporting them to MRFs far away. The lighter the products and packages (think ‘plastic’), the greater the environmental burden.
As I pointed out in this article, in order to close the recycling loop, consumers need to help create demand by buying products made from recycled materials. And, making products from materials that can be recycled in one’s own community makes sorting for recycling easier and less environmentally impactful. I’d love to see a ‘Locally Recyclable’ label on products and packages, letting me know the items I buy can be recycled safely and efficiently right nearby — how about you?
#ThinkTwice About Buying Guzzlers
What About Everything Else in Between? Often, the greatest impacts associated with owning and/ or using products is what happens between purchase and disposal. It’s about all the ‘consummables’ like energy, water, paper and toner used by light bulbs, showerheads, and printers. Other considerations might include the space a product takes up in closet, or even in some instances, the risk it might pose by lying around.
My new neighbor has opted not to buy a vacuum cleaner, but rather, borrows mine on that every other week occasion when she tidies up. Her resourcefulness to borrow — and my willingness to lend — cut down on at least one redundant vacuum cleaner in my 128-unit NYC apartment building.
Here’s a big idea: In addition to price tags, maybe we can petition businesses to put ‘cost of ownership’ tags on products, so we can more precisely calculate right while we’re shopping what it will really cost us to own a product right up until the time (and including) we’re ready to move it on. Cutting down on costs typically correlates with waste and environmental impacts.
#ThinkTwice About Buying Items That Are Not Reusable
Ask: Will this be something that someone else might want to use? And will it be easy to find others whom I might I pass it along to later on? Some day we will likely rent many products from manufacturers or service providers who will address these matters for us, but for now they remain genuine needs for waste-aware consumers.
#ThinkTwice Every Time You Shop
So starting today, and every day that you shop, bring along a reusable bag or two – CHECK, a shopping list – CHECK, and a mental list of questions that will help you think more holistically about all of the impacts and all of the different kinds of waste associated with the products we buy – CHECK.
Explore new ways of accessing goods – like sharing, borrowing and lending, that can help you not only cut down on waste, but save some money and build community, too.
Think long term and holistically about all the ramifications of what might be a quick purchase. Consider petitioning businesses and governments to help fill in the data gaps that can help you make more intelligent purchasing decisions right in the store.
(P.S. If it’s not totally noticeable by now, I’d love to start a new hashtag — #ThinkTwice. What do you think? Worth a shot? – Jacquie Ottman, Founder, WeHateToWaste.com)
This and other stories published on WeHateToWaste.com are intended to prompt productive conversation about practical solutions for preventing waste. Opinions expressed are solely those of the contributors and WeHateToWaste implies no endorsement of the products or companies mentioned. All comments will be moderated. All postings become the property of WeHateToWaste.com.