Reduce, Reuse, & Recycle Less

When you hear the slogan, “reduce, reuse, recycle,” which of the three R’s rings as most important in your mind? If it’s “recycle,” you’re not alone. The importance of the third “R” is often focused on and overemphasized in media and advertising while the other two R’s are glimpsed over. What you might not know, however is that the United States actually has a major recycling problem.

It started in the 90’s…

Beginning in California in the 1990’s, many communities in the U.S. started to switch over to single-stream recycling systems. Single stream was meant to be a lower cost alternative to dual stream recycling, in which all recyclable materials like papers and plastics were mixed into one collection truck and later sorted at MRFs (Material Recovery Facilities) rather than each material being sorted individually by the household. This newfound ease and low entry barrier resulted in more and more households recycling, and according to the EPA, a 35% increase in the recycling of Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) in 2017 compared to the 6% of MSW that was being recycled in 1960. In 2018, this decreased to 32.1%.

Despite the overall increase in recycling however, single stream has come with an unintended consequence: many of the bales that leave our recycling facilities are contaminated. This contamination is most often caused by food and liquid waste, and broken glass. Glass is especially a problem in single stream recycling because it gets broken during collection, long before it reaches an MRF. These broken pieces are difficult to process, which results in them getting mixed into and ruining paper bales. WAMU’s “What’s with Washington” explains how bad this situation with glass recycling has become in DC.

Often, contaminates make their way into the recycling stream due to what has become known as “wishful recycling,” when people toss non-recyclables into the bins in hopes that they’ll be recycled anyway. This may stem back to the fact that many Americans are not properly educated on how our recycling system works or what can be recycled in their respective areas, despite the amount of emphasis that is placed on the importance of recycling. 

At the same time that single stream kicked up in the 90’s, the U.S. had a recycling boom. But this boost of popularity that pushed the concept of recycling into mainstream culture was not a result of the work of environmental activists, but rather the mass advertising efforts made by companies like Chevron and DuPont. According to “How Big Oil Misled the Public into Believing Plastic Would Be Recycled,” an NPR article from September of 2020, “[these] companies spent tens of millions of dollars…promoting the benefits of a product that, for the most part, was buried, was burned, or in some cases, wound up in the ocean.” The fact of the matter is that most plastics cannot be efficiently recycled as they deteriorate in quality each time they are recycled.

In recent years, the problems surrounding the recycling system in the United States have only gotten worse. Before 2017, the U.S exported most of its recycling to China, as did many others around the globe, but that was until China implemented its National Sword policy. Unfortunately, China was receiving too much contaminated material that could not be used, so National Sword now enforces stricter rules on the imports of waste material and refuses to accept any recyclables that have more than 1% contamination. The U.S has scarcely been able to meet these requirements and has scrambled to find other places to send its recycling. These places are often poor or developing countries that can barely manage their own plastic waste, let alone someone else’s.

Now, all of this isn’t to say that you shouldn’t recycle ever—if no one recycled, there would be no incentive for the system to be improved. In fact, there are even some companies, like Foxblocks with the help of its parent company, Airlite Plastics, that do what they can to reduce waste by recycling their scrap plastics for their own products. Depending on your location, you can still recycle metals, paper, and sometimes glass, all of which can be recycled more efficiently than plastic.

However, you may want to treat recycling as one of your last resorts. When you do recycle, research the rules for recycling in your area. Be mindful about what products go into your recycling bin, wash all dirty containers, and separate the bins by material. You can go a step further by taking these bins to different locations that specialize in recycling that specific material. It may seem like a lot, especially if you’re used to the single stream method of recycling, but these actions can contribute to making it easier for facilities to recycle more of what they receive by helping to reduce the amount of contaminated recyclables.

Focusing on the Other R’s

Before you think about throwing something away, or even recycling it, remember that the first two words in the slogan are “Reduce” and ‘Reuse.” These are two concepts that often go hand in hand. The logic is that if you don’t need it, then you should buy or use less. This goes for food, clothing, and other general products, as well as the water and energy you use within your home.

Consider how much you consume and cut back where it’s needed. For example, if food is going to waste at home, make note of what you do and don’t eat, and only buy as much as will be eaten before it goes bad. Anything that does still go uneaten might be able to be composted instead of being thrown away. You can cut back on water usage by taking shorter showers, putting sprinklers on timers, and washing your clothes only when they need it rather than after every wear. Energy can be saved by turning off lights when you don’t need them, unplugging cords to electronics when not in use, and switching to LEDs for your lights instead of incandescent bulbs.

When you do go shopping, purchase reusable products when you can. Try to steer clear of one-time-use products like solo cups and disposable plates or try to find biodegradable or compostable alternatives. You should also use what you already own for as long as you can before it falls apart (yes, even your clothing).

By implementing these two R’s, you can greatly reduce not only your contribution of waste, but also how much you even need to try to recycle. If that wasn’t motivating enough, they can also help you reduce the empty space in your wallet.

But Wait, There’s More!

Upcycling is my favorite alternative to recycling.  It’s similar to the concept of reuse but takes it a step further. According to its definition, upcycling is “to reuse a material in such a way as to create a product of higher quality or value than the original.” Because of this, it’s also called “creative repurposing.”

The possibilities of what can be upcycled into what are only limited by your creativity (or perhaps your ability to follow a tutorial). In the case of old or unwanted clothing, especially if they aren’t in good enough condition to be given away or donated or sold to thrift stores and websites like thredUP, they can be converted into yarn, reusable shopping bags, children’s clothing, patches for quilts or Boro-inspired outfits, stuffed animals and more.

Glass containers like mason jars can be reused as drinking glasses or for homemade jellies and foods, and wide-mouthed containers can be used for candles. There are also plenty of ideas for art projects to turn old glass containers into planters, pen holders, and vases. Just remember to make sure to only use the glass you know is food-safe if you’re going to use them for anything consumable (and there are food-safe methods to take off those pesky labels).

Do you have an over-flowing pile of plastic grocery bags that you’ve been saving because you feel too guilty to throw them away? You’re in luck, because even these can be upcycled. Grocery bags can be turned into plarn (plastic yarn), and can be weaved into things like baskets, table-mats, purses, and a wide variety of others. There are plenty of tutorials out there that explain how to make and dye plarn to get started.

“But what if I’m not the DIY type?” you may ask. Fear not, there are options for you, too. If you still like the idea of upcycling, you can send your old clothing to companies like Terracycle to be repurposed.

Solarpunk & An Interview with Optopia Magazine

Solarpunk —Ideas for a Brighter Future

The origins of solarpunk trace back to 2008 with a post on a blog called Republic of the Bees. The idea of the post was to create a subgenre of speculative fiction similar to steampunk, but rather than the alternative realities of steampunk where steam power and Victorian technologies remained prevalent, it would be based on renewable technologies like wind and solar power. Unlike steampunk as well, the concept of solarpunk was meant to be something that could be achieved in real life.

Solarpunk has since evolved into a genre and movement with recognizable aesthetics and goals. When looking up solarpunk, you’re bound to find anything from green buildings like those in Singapore and Italy, and concepts for art nouveau inspired cities glistening with stained glass, to resources for gardening on a tight budget and repairing your own technology. There is also no shortage of wikis, articles, forums and even books expressing the different ideas on solarpunk and how such a future could be achieved. However, it is generally accepted that a solarpunk future would be optimistic, if not yet perfect, where humanity has a better care, understanding and appreciation for nature and the environment.

One resource you might also find while delving into the realm of solarpunk is Optopia, a small magazine that focuses on exploring art, prose, poetry, and ideas inspired by solarpunk.

I had the opportunity to interview Rifka, Optopia’s layout director, to learn more about what they do, as well as Rifka’s thoughts on the solar punk movement. You can read Optopia’s first two issues at https://issuu.com/optopia. You can also support them on Patreon.


What first drew you to the concept of solarpunk?

Rifka: What initially drew me was seeing people on the internet share the parts of their lives that are solarpunk. Solarpunk is partially an aesthetic movement, but it also finds beauty in the imperfections. People sharing photos of their gardens, but also their art, their upcycling, and just that it was a movement full of normal people, really made me really interested. I’ve always been interested in environmentalism, and solarpunk is a very concrete way of connecting with nature in an individual way, but also not losing sight of the world at large.

What do you consider to be solarpunk? Why?

Rifka: I’m honestly not sure. I could talk about the aesthetic, with things like green architecture, nature, and gardening and greenhouses, but solarpunk is also very much about activism, like antifascism, antiracism, and climate justice, and connecting with your community. It’s also a sci-fi movement, and so I’d say sci-fi with those themes is solarpunk too. I guess it really isn’t one thing, and that’s why I like it so much.

What made you want to join the Optopia team?

Rifka: I love solarpunk art. I’m a fan of bright colors and nature and seeing Issue 1 (which had already been made when I joined the team) made me see a real opportunity to use beautiful art in page design. I love page design—it’s about celebrating art, laying it out, bringing out its themes, and making a cohesive whole out of a bunch of different parts. To me, that’s part of collectivism and coming together of solarpunk.

What does the team at Optopia hope to achieve through its publications?

Rifka: We want to uplift the solarpunk artists in the community, to give them a platform and a way to connect. We’d also like to give solarpunk a wider audience—it’s pretty niche right now—and art is a great way to attract people into the movement and show them our message.

Can anyone submit to Optopia/When does Optopia generally accept submissions?

Rifka: Yes, anyone can submit! We accept submissions on a rotating basis, so your piece, provided we accept it, will just go into whatever the next issue is.

What do you personally believe is the most achievable aspect of solarpunk/which aspect do you most hope is achieved?

Rifka: I’m not sure how to answer this, because solarpunk is so disparate. There are a lot of different ideas, opinions, and political affiliations under solarpunk. I’d say the aspect I’d hope to achieve most is averting the climate crisis. I’m not sure how achievable that is, and solarpunk definitely won’t be the only key—stuff like a Green New Deal, and massive action on the part of governments is also required. From solarpunk specifically, I think we can get more of a respect for nature. Solarpunk doesn’t view humans as inherently evil or destructive, and it instead takes the idea that nature has a right to exist alongside humanity as a given, focusing on the beauty that can come from that.

Are there any parts of solarpunk that you try to incorporate into your everyday life/would you consider yourself “solarpunk?”

Rifka: I’m not sure I would consider myself solarpunk, but you could also argue that just believing in the ideas and doing your best to implement them makes you solarpunk. I do the normal, eco-friendly things that a lot of people do: eschew fast fashion, try to moderate my own consumption, go to climate protests, etc. I currently live at home, so I don’t have a lot of space, but I hope to grow plants in the future, like perhaps a small indoor herb garden, for starters. When I go to college next year (assuming I *can* go) I’m also hoping to get involved with climate activism on campus.

Where would you suggest people start if they want to learn more about solarpunk on their own/what resources have been helpful to you?

Rifka: If you’re really new to it, I’d start with the online communities on places like Tumblr, or the small one on TikTok. Mastodon (a social media similar to Twitter, but it’s what’s called “federated”—look it up if you’re interested) has a community called Sunbeam City that is pretty cool. If you’re new to leftism or don’t consider yourself a leftist, I’d start with looking at the aesthetic/sci-fi side. You definitely don’t have to be a leftist to be solarpunk, but some of the most vocal solarpunks are also anarchists, or other niche left movements, and it can be a little scary to join a community you’re unfamiliar with. Sunbeam City (https://wiki.sunbeam.city/doku.php?id=solarpunk) has a reading/watching list—one of my favorites on there is The Long Way to A Small Angry Planet, by Becky Chambers! You can also always read Optopia 😀

At Open Range Construction, our focus is to build and introduce sustainable and energy efficient homes to the construction industry. How do you think the themes of solarpunk could be incorporated into what we do?

Rifka: A lot of the solarpunk aesthetic that comes up when you search it is green buildings, with green walls or roofs. I believe that living near nature (whether that looks like a houseplant in a big city or living in a rural area near a national park) can help people appreciate and want to protect nature and the environment. You’ve already made energy efficient homes which is important and can help people on an individual level. Part of the activism of solarpunk is also focusing on the large-scale change that has to happen, so continuing to normalize energy efficiency and sustainability is important. Making these things more accessible—less expensive, easier to implement, and available to more people, is also really important.

What we’ve found during our time in business is that it’s very difficult for anything to be 100% sustainable—for example while the homes we build are sustainable, the manufacturing processes for the materials we use is less so (ex: EPS foam is generally derived from oil, although the foam in the ICF block we use is made from recycled material). Even the manufacturing and disposal processes for tools that create clean energy, like solar panels, can have negative environmental impacts. What are your thoughts on these downsides/what are your ideas on how we might work around them as a society?

Rifka: This is one big question solarpunk wrestles with, as does any futuristic model. To me, the point is not to be perfect, but better. While solarpunk does have this ethereal, aesthetic, mood board-able component, it also celebrates ugly and imperfect things, so it has this understanding that 100% sustainable is unachievable and that’s okay. The home-DIY and upcycling parts of solarpunk feel very welcoming to someone who does worry that we can’t prevent all negative environmental impacts. Solarpunk also has a lot of faith in humanity. While solarpunk focuses a lot on connecting with nature, it recognizes that humans have the ability to be kind and smart and to work together and make cool stuff. A lot of the solarpunk sci-fi I’ve read focuses around a domestic futuristic tech—not weapons, but photosynthetic abilities, or bioremediation. As a human race, we have the ability to keep thinking about our problems and fixing them. You’ve found a way to make recycled foam, and people are finding new ways to make solar panels better, more efficient, and longer-lasting. We can’t fix all our problems at once, but we can keep thinking about them as they come up.