Thursday, May 19, 2011

How Many Rs in That?

Those who were alive in the nineties probably recall a public service ad campaign called “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.” Those were called the three Rs, and they were very familiar to me in my childhood. There were three clear environmental responsibilities that we all had as we grew into civic-minded young adults. I’m twenty-five now, and lately I’ve been wondering, what happened to those? What became of our easily shared cultural understanding of the concept of waste hierarchy?

Although today we are collectively aware of the seriousness of issues such as climate change, energy conservation, and ecological disaster, and although we may earnestly support policy initiatives that serve these topics, we seem to have actually regressed over the years in our ability to make substantive and individual lifestyle changes for the good of the environment.

This has been on my mind lately because personal experience has repeatedly shown me that trying to live in accordance with the axiom of “reduce, reuse, recycle” only seems to generate confusion from the people surrounding me. For example, I was in a Tim Horton’s recently, spending a Sunday afternoon out in the dull townscape, but sheltered from the rain. I had just finished a cup of coffee and decided to dig in my pocket for some change and enjoy a hot chocolate, as well. So I took my cup back to the register, naturally thinking that it would be senseless to throw out a paper cup, with its plastic lid, and then ask for another one three seconds later. I held it up as I approached the cashier, and said “Could you refill this with hot chocolate, please?” And then I set the cup down on the counter.

He looked at the cup, and then looked around the employee area, as if I might have been talking to someone else. His eyes settled back on the cup, and he said “Oh” in a way that suggested he had just come to recognize the item. “But you have to pay for it, though.”

I was momentarily baffled. I hadn’t asked for anything for free. I said the word “yeah” at least five times in rapid succession, flustered by the absurdity of having to stand in a store and affirm that I understand I’m expected to pay for an item they sell. Then the young man picked up the cup and asked, “You want it in here?”


“I can give you a new cup.”

I know you can give me a new cup. I don’t think they’re in short supply, but I don’t think that fact means I ought to just pick up a stack of them and pitch them into a landfill, either. I had to explain to this cashier that I just wanted to cut down on waste, and he nodded in a way that indicated to me that he comprehended the words, but had never heard anyone say them before.

We as a society don’t understand the idea of reuse. The amount of waste that must be produced by one store such as that Tim Horton’s in the space of one day is sickening. Perhaps it is even more so in light of the amount that could be saved if half of its customers saw fit to reuse a paper cup, or to bring a travel mug from home. I try to carry one with me when I can, but sometimes I slip up. Still, I’m reasonably confident that I’m making a good faith effort, which is honestly more than I can say for most of the people around me. Of course, I’m personally not the sort of person that we need to worry about, anyway. Even if I never used a travel mug, I wouldn’t be contributing much, comparatively, as I am not a daily consumer of coffee or of much anything else. I don’t purchase such things weekly, either, or with any regularity from month-to-month. I guess that covers the “reduce” part of the 3 Rs, also.

For most people who are regular consumers of such things as coffee, however, it seems as though the practice of carrying a travel mug has to be rooted in some sort of incentive program. At your average gas station, a refill costs significantly less than a brand-new paper cup. Having worked in gas stations, I have seen that even this doesn’t make an enormous impact on people’s habits, but also that there is a solid minority of people who reliably carry their own vessels in order to save a few dimes.

At Tim Horton’s there was such an incentive program… for a while, years ago. And what this fast-growing, multi-national corporation offered as a discount for those who brought in outside cups was five cents off of the price of their usual large coffee. For all but the most miserly among us, that is no incentive at all, and considering that that was their best effort at reduction, and that even it was discontinued, it does not surprise me that their employees also would be unfamiliar with the concept of those other two Rs.

But this is not a problem limited to Tim Horton’s or to any particular set of companies, or any small segment of the population, and I don’t mean this to be taken as a criticism of a business any more than as a criticism of people as a whole. The company is at fault, and the individuals who are incidentally employed at or served by that company are at fault, too. So it is with my experience with Wegmans, which I think an even better example of the same blindness to the virtues of reduction and reuse.

Every supermarket carries those reusable bags, now, but lots of people have a habit of forgetting to reuse them, and their impulse to care for the environment seems not to extend very far beyond what is being actively advertised to them each time they walk into a store and see the company greenwashing their image with a display of environmentally responsible alternatives to plastic bags. Just as with my travel mug, I forget my reusable bag sometimes. I try my best, though, to compensate for my lapses, as by asking for paper or dispensing with the bag altogether.

That, as it turns out, is not as easy as it should be. A long time ago, I was at a Wegmans picking up just two items that I needed, and I had forgotten my tote bag, so when I set my purchases down in front of the cashier, I pointed out, “I don’t need a bag.”

She smiled warmly, sincerely, and said “That’s okay” as she dropped the goods into a plastic bag and tore it from its clips behind her scanner. She had legitimately not understood that “I don’t need a bag” meant “I specifically don’t want a bag.” To her, my comment was evidently a quaint effort to be polite, and perhaps to either save her work or save her company a penny or two. She was downright happy to deny my request, seemingly emphasizing that I needn’t have worried: the bags are free! In fact, I could have taken as many as I wanted! The idea that there might be any reason behind purchasing behaviors other than personal convenience never crossed this woman’s mind. Reduction and reuse were foreign concepts that didn’t have any bearing on our day to day activities. This woman must have been about the same age as me. She should have remembered those old public service ads.

We all need to remember the slogan: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. And we need to stop acting as if recycling is good enough, that sorting our trash into separate blue and green totes makes such a difference that there’s no need to consider any changes that actually effect our overall lifestyle. These concepts seemed like they were universally ingrained when I was a child, but now it seems like it’s going to take a breaking point to get us to realize them again. Something needs to eventually convince the majority of us that social and ecological responsibility outweighs personal convenience. But as it is, that, I believe, is exactly the reason why we have forgotten two of the three Rs: They are the two that will ultimately change the status quo, deeply affecting our habits of consumption, and quite possibly the profit margins of the largest corporations. “Reduce” is probably not a word that they want to hear from the mouths of American spenders. But I want to hear it. I want to hear it spoken loudly, and often.

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