This article was originally published in the Teton Valley News May 3, 2012.
“Reduce, Reuse, Recycle”. In April, I taught these three words to over 350 children in Teton Valley as a part of their schools’ Earth Day activities. Kids get it. They want to recycle. I learned that they also want to do much, much more.
My goal was to present positive, hopeful lessons that get kids excited about the recycling programs at their schools. My focus wasn’t on littering, but kids at every school I visited talked about it. They told me about animals that eat plastic or get caught in it. Most have never seen the ocean, but they have heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Kids, even very young kids, are already worried about the planet they live on, and telling them they can recycle plastic bottles doesn’t ease their concerns.
Plastic has improved our lives in many ways, but it has also introduced many problems. It is made from petroleum. It contains chemicals, like bisphenal A and phthalates, which are currently under scrutiny for their potential to disrupt human development. It never biodegrades, but rather photo-degrades into tiny pieces that are eaten by animals and work their way up the food chain. Even when disposed of properly, plastic is lightweight and quick to blow into the playgrounds and streams children told me about.
We can now recycle #1 and #2 plastic bottles in Teton County, but what about the other kinds of plastics? Perhaps the mantra, “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle”, needs updating. I propose we update it to “Refuse, Reuse, Rethink”.
We can REFUSE single use plastic bags, straws, plastic take-out containers, bottled water, and items with excessive packaging. It’s not hard to carry your own cloth shopping bags, drink out of a glass, and carry a lunch box. Farmers markets are a great place to buy fresh produce and goods with minimal packaging. Many small, local companies produce goods with minimal packaging as well, such as 460 bread.
Durable plastic can displace the flimsy, single-use plastic common in packaging. Why not REUSE durable containers to purchase goods from the bulk bins? While yogurt containers aren’t recyclable in Teton Valley, buying large containers rather than single-serve saves money while leaving you with lightweight containers that can be reused multiple times. A metal or thick plastic bottle can be refilled from the sink or fountain, decreasing the need for single-use drink bottles. Tupperware is great for carrying home leftovers from a restaurant.
If we all RETHINK our purchases, we can cut a great deal of plastic from our lives. Soap still comes in bars, stores still sell toilet paper wrapped in tissue paper, lettuce is still sold by the head, and eating ice cream in a cone will always be more fun than eating it from a cup. The river trips, bike rides and family hikes of my childhood memories are free of plastic litter and global concerns. I hope the memories our valley youth are creating will be as carefree.
This article first appeared in Teton Valley News on May 3, 2012. It has been reprinted here with permission. Tanya Anderson is the author of the column “Thinking Outside of the Trash Can”, which is published in the Teton Valley News the first Thursday of each month.