How to Think about Waste

Brad Hurley

Recycling is the first and often the only step that most people take to reduce waste. But it just scratches the surface of what you can do. The U.S. EPA’s Waste Management Hierarchy ranks actions according to their environmental benefits. Source reduction and reuse are at the top of the list, because they focus on avoiding waste in the first place. Recycling comes second. 

In her book Zero Waste Home, Bea Johnson adds a fourth R to the top of the familiar "reduce, reuse, recycle" list: refuse. As in “refuse what you do not need.” Refusing and reducing what you don’t need will likely have a larger impact on your personal carbon footprint than anything else you do to avoid waste. Greenhouse gas emissions from waste come from the decomposition of waste in landfills (which emits methane), and from the energy embodied in materials that end up as waste. This “embodied energy” includes the energy it takes to extract and process raw materials, the energy it takes to manufacture products, and the energy it takes to get those products from manufacturing plants into your hands. That turns out to be a lot of energy.

Refusing what you don't need can be as simple as requesting a glass of water instead of a plastic water bottle on stage, or as challenging as learning how to maintain and repair your own equipment to keep it working longer so you don't have to buy something new. 

When you're on the road or playing at a festival, throwaway containers and utensils add up: paper or foam cups, plastic knives and forks, paper plates, plastic or glass bottles for beverages, paper napkins...the trash cans and recycling bins often fill to overflowing. You can play a role in reducing the impacts by asking for and using alternatives. If you feel strongly about it, talk with event organizers and ask them to consider making changes next time.

When traveling, you can avoid a lot of waste by being prepared. I keep a small reusable set of bamboo utensils in my daypack; I omit the knife in case it ends up being flagged by security at airports. That helps me avoid the need to pick up disposable utensils when I travel. I also try (not always successfully) to remember to bring my own water bottle and even have a metal insulated cup that I use on airplanes for both hot and cold beverages instead of accepting the throwaway cups provided by the airline. I don't make a big deal about it; I don't want to be "that person" who lectures others about waste, but people do notice. On a couple of recent flights passengers next to me inquired about my cup and asked where they could get one. Even one of the flight attendants was intrigued.

Buying secondhand music gear and computer equipment is another effective strategy for source reduction. Refurbished computers and even refurbished or secondhand cell phones are often just as reliable as new ones and sometimes carry the same warranty. Thrift and vintage stores (including online versions) are a great way to find good clothing and other secondhand products at great prices. 

The big lesson I’ve learned in my efforts to reduce waste, both at home and on the road, is that it takes preparation and time. The time isn’t always available, and that’s okay. The keys to success in following a waste diet are similar to those of any other diet: in order to make it work long-term, you have to like your life on a diet. If it feels too constraining and stressful, you’ll eventually slip back into your old habits.

The bottom line with waste is to start by looking upstream: buy less, avoid packaging, buy used or recycled, and don’t accept things you don’t need. Then keep what you own going for as long as possible by maintaining and repairing it instead of replacing with new stuff. And finally, minimize the waste that you do generate by composting and recycling as much as you can.

Brad Hurley is an environmental writer and editor based in Montréal, specializing in climate change, children's environmental health, and other topics. He also plays traditional Irish music on wooden flute, whistle, and uilleann pipes, and has written a popular online guide to the Irish flute.