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Is It More Important to You to Reduce, Reuse or Recycle?

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 (California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle))

This post is part of KQED’s Do Now U project. Do Now U is a biweekly activity for students and the public to engage and respond to current issues using social media. Do Now U aims to build civic engagement and digital literacy for learners of all ages. This post was written by the following students from Bridget Trogden’s “Fall 2016 Honors Program Seminar” class at Mercer University: Trent Bateman, Anna Dillon, Erica  Duncan, Timothy  Hood, Jessica  Lee, Jessica Lewis, Faith McColl, Winter Overby, Molly Parrish, Emily Robertson, Moriah Roycroft, Nidhi Shashidhara, Bryan Shin, Lindsey Smallwood, David Stokes III, Shannon Tho, Mason Thornton and Katelyn West.

Featured Media Resource

Where Does Your Recycling Go?
This video follows the path of recyclable goods after being collected and shows the process of sorting the different kinds of recyclable materials.

Do Now U

Is it more important to you to reduce, reuse or recycle? #DoNowU3Rs

How to Do Now

To respond to the Do Now U, you can comment below or post your response on Twitter. Just be sure to include #DoNowU3Rs and @KQEDedspace in your posts.

Learn More About Reducing, Reusing and Recycling

In modern culture, the “three R’s”—reduce, reuse and recycle—are known as key techniques used in attempting to create a sustainable environment. However, in the mid-1950s, single-use items were touted for their convenience, and the era of “throwaway living” began. This lifestyle created a destructive societal model. People began producing excess waste by only using items once, creating a need to curb the amount of waste being produced. Conservation and environmental issues became more prominent, prompting the first national Earth Day on April 22, 1970, new laws and new awareness campaigns. Around this time, the phrase “reduce, reuse, recycle” was born. Citizens were encouraged to reduce the amount of items they were consuming, reuse some items and recycle others.


Conservationists argue that we cannot maintain our quality of life as human beings with as much waste as we produce, and that embracing sustainability is the best way to maintain modern culture. Through the conscious reduction of our consumption, we can preserve  resources by taking small steps that add up over time. Drinking water from reusable water bottles reduces use of plastic bottles. Taking shorter showers is one way to reduce consumption of water. Keeping thermostats at more modest levels or utilizing a clothesline for drying clothes are also appropriate ways to save energy. The reduce and reuse strategies are often the neglected parts of the three R’s.

Although personal choices are important, larger-scale business initiatives often focus on reduction of the use of natural resources as preferable to simple reuse or recycling. Sustainability-based practices in the corporate world save businesses quite a lot of money, and data shows that consumers prefer environmentally-friendly businesses. The main way that businesses utilize the three R’s is by reducing the use of resources. This topic also has global ramifications, as production-based countries suffer from higher air pollution rates than consumption-based countries. The U.S. Energy Information Administration believes that we have enough liquid fuel to meet our global energy demand through 2040, but finding new, eco-friendly energy sources and reducing energy usage is crucial for the future.

There are downsides to reducing, reusing, and recycling. In fact, this could even be a trade-off. Data is not clear that practicing the three R’s is better than consuming new goods. For example, some may think that continuing to drive an older car or buying a used car is a good illustration of reduce and reuse.  However, newer models of cars are more fuel efficient than their predecessors, thus buying new cars helps to reduce fuel usage. On the other hand, newer cars are often bigger and heavier, requiring more resources for their manufacturing and also leading to increased rates of road degradation. Reuse in general seems like a good strategy, but each circumstance is different. Continuous use of some plastic bottles can lead to health risks if they are made with cheap plastic or if harsh chemicals leach out of those containers with increased use.

Recycling center in Macon, GA
Recycling center in Macon, GA (Winter Overby)

The act of recycling is also expensive. The cost of recycling rises and the benefits decrease as cities transition from recycling just paper and metals to the practice of recycling plastic, food waste, and glass as well. Customers prefer single-stream recycling, but about 25% of items in those streams end up going to landfills anyway, cutting the profit margins of any municipalities using these strategies. Prices for recycled materials have plummeted as a result of lower oil prices and a decreased demand for them overseas. This has even caused some recycling companies to shut down and cancel plans for new technologies.

The ways that consumers interact with a myriad of items each day is complex, but increased awareness and analysis of one’s choices is increasingly important for a crowded planet. The following question can guide not only individual choices, but also larger discussions about our attitudes and behavior: Is it more important to you to reduce, reuse, or recycle?

More Resources

Audio: NPR
Reduce, Reuse, Remove the Cellophane: Recycling Demystified
Hear answers to some frequently asked questions about recycling, including explanations of certain decisions and debunking of different misconceptions.

Video: TED Talks
Arthur Potts Dawson: A Vision for Sustainable Restaurants
A popular chef shares his ideas for a series of restaurants that focus on sustainability.

Website: BBC
The 6 R’s
See a list of the traditional three R’s of sustainability: reduce, reuse and recycle; and, learn about three other “R’s” to consider: rethink, refuse and repair.

Find best practices for using Do Now, using Twitter for teaching, and using other digital tools.


KQED Do Now U is a biweekly activity in collaboration with SENCER. SENCER is a community of transformation that consists of educators and administrators in the higher and informal education sectors. SENCER aims to create an intelligent, educated, and empowered citizenry through advancing knowledge in the STEM fields and beyond. SENCER courses show students the direct connections between subject content and the real world issues they care about, and invite students to use these connections to solve today’s most pressing problems.

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