“Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” Revisited

Language is the way we communicate with each other so words and how we use them are important. Any conversation about downsizing and decluttering, whether written or spoken, almost always incudes the frequently used catchphrase “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.” All the words in that phrase start with “re-” a prefix that comes from the Latin and means “again” or “again and again” to indicate repetition, or it can mean going back to do something again, as in redo or revisit.

I’m revisiting my thinking about that standard: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.

Reduce means to use less and is certainly a good place to start. Reduce means to have a smaller or lesser amount, or to bring down, to diminish, or to minimize the amount we have. And in some definitions, it means to restore, to bring back or to lead back, to its original or lower state. So if the first step in decluttering is to reduce, then one meaning is to bring ourselves back to our original state of needing or owning less. Perhaps thinking of “reduce” in that way, that our original state is one in which we need less, we will have an easier time of getting rid of the things we no longer need, or at least, maybe, we’ll be able to do it with less angst.

Reuse means to use something again, usually for its original purpose. Most of us have worn a dress or outfit again, getting multiple uses out of our clothes, and all of us reuse our dinner plates and cutlery every day. So reuse is a part of our daily life, a no-brainer. But another definition of reuse is to use something again for a different purpose, sometimes called creative reuse or repurposing. Our forebears used pieces of fabric salvaged from clothing or household items to create bed quilts. Currently, many animal shelters ask for used bedding and pillows to use as animal bedding. Sometimes we reuse by passing along our older child’s clothes to our younger child, or by giving clothing that’s still wearable to a neighbor who has a still younger child. When we were cleaning out my aunt’s closets, we donated a number of pairs of elbow length gloves to a local theater group: clothing from the past to be used as part of a costume.

Recycle means, according to one dictionary, to collect and treat what would otherwise be trash so it can be used again. We recycle paper, sometimes by writing on paper that’s already been used. My father-in-law used the back of legal size envelopes from his mail to make lists, a habit I have incorporated into my life. They are the perfect size and shape for a list. We can print on both sides of paper or go ‘paperless’ by emailing everyone the agenda before a meeting; all are ways to to save trees. Upcycling, or creative reuse, is the process of transforming old or discarded items into new products that are sometimes better than the original. At a crafts fair I went to last weekend, I saw crafters who had cut off the sleeves of old sweaters and fashioned them into fingerless mitts, and others who had felted old sweaters (washed them in very hot water to cause the fibers to lock together) and used that stronger fabric to make purses. In a fully circular economy, we would be continuously using and reusing everything, reducing greatly what goes into the landfills.

What more can we do?

We can take old thinking about our stuff and repeal it, replace it, reverse it; we can rethink what our stuff means to us.

We can think about resale – having a yard sale for toys that our kids have outgrown or taking our clothing to a resale shop – rather than tossing it.

We can reedit or refine our needs, both clothing and household. How many multiples of things do we really need to have.

We can refuse things that don’t work for us, even pens that are given out for free, and rethink things are not environmentally friendly.

We can retire old thinking.

We can show respect – for ourselves and our fellow beings, for all creatures, and for the earth.

Linda Hetzer is an editor and author of books on home designcrafts, and food, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home

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