LOCALLY GROWN: Don't throw away when you can reuse

Saturday, July 17, 2010 | 6:44 p.m. CDT

I don’t like Swiffer. No, I actually loathe Swiffer, which really isn’t fair considering I’ve never used the one-time-use mop wipes or other throwaway products.

The commercials for Swiffer and the disposable toilet brush make me cringe. It’s not because I’m afraid of cleaning the house. I just hate to see new single-use products when perfectly fine alternatives exist, such as a rag and vinegar solution, baking soda and other common, natural cleaners that most people have in their kitchen cupboard.

I already discussed how composting your food waste can greatly reduce your trash load and provide a useful product. According to the EPA, each of us makes 4.5 pounds of trash per day; that’s more than 1,600 pounds per year, 30 percent of which is food. Although composting is great, it’s just one tool in the sustainability kit.  

Obviously, we’re often buying more than we need, wasting food, the resources and labor that went into growing it. We're wasting our own money because we’re buying things, storing them and pitching them in the trash. This includes enough water to provide for 500 million people, according to a report from the International Water Management Institute.

I have trouble imagining millions of anything, but photographer Chris Jordan creates visual images to help people conceptualize big numbers, such as the 40 million throwaway cups we use everyday for hot beverages (at nearly all the places to buy coffee in Columbia, you get a discount when you use your own cup).


Why do we throw so much away? It’s part of our culture. We live by the idea that too much is better than just right and leaps above not enough.

How do we stop? My wife and I take a few trips to the grocery store each week. It’s a nice walk for our dog, and that way, we only go when we need something. Usually it's because we’re out of milk.

Not everyone lives within walking distance of the grocery store, but anyone can chart how often and how much of a product they use and plan accordingly, and short of medicine or toilet paper, running out of something really isn’t a crisis.  

But food is just one part of the trash pile.

"Reduce" is probably the most ignored of the "reduce, reuse and recycle" mantra, but it’s the most important. If you don’t buy something,  you don’t have to throw it away, reuse or recycle it. It sounds simple, but in our consumer-oriented culture it's a difficult concept to remember.

Author Annie Leonard said 99 percent of the stuff we consume is trashed by six months after the date of sale.

We haven’t always been this way. We consume twice as much as we did 50 years ago, which Leonard described in her film “Story of Stuff.”  In the post-World War II era, retail analyst Victor Lebow described a strategy for economic growth that became the driving force in our economy and led to throwaway products, such as Swiffers:

“Our enormously productive economy … demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction and consumption … we need things consumed, burned up, worn out, and replaced and discarded at an ever-increasing rate.”

We bought it, literally and figuratively, and that model drove great economic growth, but for a sustainable future, we need to consider a different path.

I recently borrowed the book, “Cradle to Cradle,” from a friend. Although it’s less than 200 pages, it feels like a brick in my bag. It’s made of durable, waterproof material that can be recycled again and again, rather than paper, which loses value when recycled. The authors use it as an example of a “technical nutrient,” meaning it can circulate infinitely in industrial cycles.

The message: If you must buy, choose durable, quality goods that last, can be reused or easily recycled.

I use Dr. Bronner’s concentrated liquid soap for just about everything. My pint bottle lasted a year (because it’s concentrated, and I use it sparingly, not because I rarely bathe), and now I can refill it at Clover’s.

I paid about $8 for it, which is more than a bargain bottle of shampoo, but considering how long it lasts, it’s more economical than buying cheap stuff. And I can use the bottle again and again.

Another alternative is not buying anything in the first place.

That borders on impossible, but borrowing and looking for freebies on exchanges sites, such as Freecycle, is a good place to start. Friday morning, an unused box spring, a swing set and lots of toys topped the Columbia Freecycle Yahoo Group, which has more than 4,000 members. Freecycle helps save money and promote reuse, but it still promotes consumption.   

A series of questions might provide a solution to that conundrum.

Jan Weaver, director of the environmental studies program at MU, asks herself the following questions before she buys an item:

Where am I going to put it? How often am I going to use it? Can I borrow it from a friend or neighbor? Do I already have something similar? Where’s this thing going to be in 10 years? Who’s going to deal with it after I die?

Weaver said frustration from having too much stuff led to her vetting process.

“We have six gas cans at our house, and I think it's because we never found a good place for the gasoline can," she said. "When mowing season came around again, and we couldn't locate where we put it the previous year, so we bought a new one.”

Weaver said by using her list, her desire for the item diminishes.

Her final rationalization is to support the economy: "Once you choose to buy something, buy the right stuff, so you’re not encouraging companies to make crap.”

Michael Burden is a journalism graduate student at MU, a graduate instructor and the MU campus representative for the Peace Corps.

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Andrew Hansen July 19, 2010 | 11:58 a.m.

“We have six gas cans at our house, and I think it's because we never found a good place for the gasoline can,"
Seriously? That is just bizarre.

(Report Comment)
Jen Apoian July 19, 2010 | 7:47 p.m.

I really enjoyed this column! It separated itself from the ubiquitous sustainability mantra by focusing on reusing things, which I find is often the easiest step because it's all about asking yourself critical questions, like you mentioned.

My favorite thing to reuse are empty wine bottles as candle holders (for the long type, not the squat Yankee Candle kind). Any student who enjoys wine should know this one!

Also--Dr. Bronner's is great, though I advise the weak from using it as toothpaste (except, perhaps, the peppermint!).

(Report Comment)
Brett Ker July 26, 2010 | 11:39 a.m.

Agreed! Reduce is probably the most ignored, or misunderstood aspects of the "3 Rs". While many of us as consumers do not consider "reduce" in our daily lives, many manufacturers place a heavy focus on this area in their processes. The company I work for, which is manufactures a competitive product to swiffer, continues to focus on doing more with less. Building high performing cleaning products means less cleaning solution used per square foot. Innovations in cleaning pads (such as microfiber)and better tooling allow for multipule uses which means less in the landfill.
It's exciting to see the direction many companies are taking for the better. To use one of my favorite lines from a famous movie "If you build it, they will come"


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