This article appeared in the 20th Carnival of All Things Eco at Focus Organic.
Reduce, reuse and recycle. We all understand the importance of the three “R’s” of being environmentally responsible. I believe there is another part of the cycle that is often overlooked. I think it is the most important part. I am referring to supporting the market for your carefully recycled cast-offs. When you buy something, look for items made from a high percentage of post-consumer recycled materials. It doesn’t matter how many plastic bottles, newspapers, cardboard and tin cans we throw in the recycle bin. If there is no market for these materials, the recycling industry will disappear. In west Texas, for example, it is very difficult to recycle glass. Evidently there is simply no market for it. According to my research, the closest glass recycling center is about 600 miles away, in Houston. However high-minded they may be, your local recycling center does not take in your trash through the goodness of their hearts; they take it in because they can sell it.
When you purchase items that are made from a high percentage of post-consumer materials, you are helping to create a market for the things you are trying to keep out of the landfill. Alternatively, when you lovingly collect all your paper and cardboard for recycling, compost your vegetable scraps and repurpose old containers and then go out and buy products made from newly created resources, you are throwing a cog in the whole system. If there were a strong market in post-consumer materials, you wouldn’t even have to gather up your recyclables; people would be stealing them out of your trash! Look to recent reports of home copper theft for proof of the power of a good market for post-consumer goods. Lots of people have, for years, supplemented their incomes by digging aluminum cans out of dumpsters and selling them. Even without vigilant recycling, these items make it out of the trash stream (and sometimes out of your house prematurely!) by virtue of the healthy market for them.
If a product is labeled “recycled content,” the material might have come from excess or damaged items generated during normal manufacturing processes-not collected through a local recycling program. Finding a use for these products is a good thing but does not have quite the same benefit as reusing things that have already been through the consumer material stream. When you are checking labels always look for a high post-consumer content. Another benefit of supporting the post-consumer content market is that it creates competition. As the demand for these products increases, more companies will enter the marketplace, the quality of the products will improve and, at the same time, prices will drop.
Keep recycling but don't forget to support the companies that make use of your recycled goods!