In most Western countries, we currently operate within a “linear economy.” You may have heard this buzzword before, but what does this actually mean?
In short, it means that the line of production take a one-directional, linear path: extraction of raw materials, production, use, and disposal.
This linear system appears to be cheap and convenient, primarily because it’s what we’re accustomed to. However, it’s clear that this system isn’t sustainable. There are huge fossil fuel demands and pollution at every step, and in the end it leaves plastics and other materials to sit in landfill for thousands of years.
If we recycled perfectly, that would transition us into what’s known as a “circular economy,” meaning that the last step in the line of production circles back to the beginning, as final products get recycled into new raw materials. However, recycling in the U.S. is problematic and largely unfunctional, and while materials like aluminum and glass can be recycled indefinitely, most plastics can only be recycled once before they must be sent to landfill.
Therefore, if our goal is to transition to a circular rather than a linear economy, the best way to get there is to focus on my favorite of the 4 R’s: Reuse.
Here’s what a circular economy looks like in practice.
You start with a disposable product that you use frequently, whether out of convenience, habit, lack of other options. For instance: plastic wrap. This product is part of the linear economy; petroleum was extracted from the earth, refined to create plastic and formed into Saran wrap, you use the wrap once for your sandwich, and then toss it into a trash can where it will sit in a landfill and not break down for thousand and thousands of years. In a circular economy, the life cycle of a reusable product like beeswax wrap looks a bit different. Beeswax wrap is made from a renewable, plant-derived resource like cotton or bamboo, and wax. Then you use it to wrap your food, and by washing and drying it carefully you can extend its life and use again, and again, and again, and again. Every single time you wash it instead of throwing away plastic cling wrap, you’re saving the resources to extract and produce Saran wrap, not to mention the polluting chemicals that pose an issue after disposal. At the end of its life, your wrap goes to compost, where it breaks down and is formed into a new raw material (fertilizer!), which can be used to help grow cotton or bamboo for the next wrap. Now that’s circular.
Reusing is pretty simple in theory, but it can be hard to know where to start. I’ve broken down some of the most impactful swaps into three categories: to-go, in the house, and repurposing.
The first place to start is to be prepared with reusable items that you might use when you’re on the run.
Think take-out Indian food, grocery shopping, spontaneous Starbucks trips, hydration for a hike- all of these are situations where you typically might use disposable (usually plastic) products. Let’s start simple:
- Reusable bag. This one is essential! Keep some bags in the trunk of your car or by the front door by your keys so you always remember to grab them when you go shopping. I even like keeping a little foldable one like this one in my purse so it’s always handy-- they also stock them at most grocery stores.
- Reusable water bottles: It’s 2019, we’ve all read about the harms of plastic water bottles. For the environment, for our health, it’s time to hop on the reusable water bottle trend. Go for a glass or metal bottle to stay plastic-free.
- Speaking of staying hydrated, reusable coffee mugs! Lots of coffee shops will give you a discount for bringing your own mug, or you can ask the barista if they have “for here” reusable mugs and take the time to sit and enjoy your drink on-site, plastic-free.
- Metal straws: these have become all the rage lately, and I understand why. Metal, glass, bamboo, boba size, smoothie size, even foldable options exist. If you’re grossed out by the idea of reusing a straw, check out these that come with handy cleaners you can carry with you to keep it spotless.
- Utensils: Reusable utensils always come in handy when you least expect it. Even if you only have room for this little spork, you’ll always be prepared.
- To-go food containers: If you're heading out to a restaurant that you know always serves too much food for you to finish, why not bring your own reusable container to take your leftovers home with you?
The second category of easy reusable swaps are for around the house. These all replace items that are normally disposable (but don’t need to be!):
- Cut up old t-shirts or raggedy towels to use instead of disposable paper towels. When they’re dirty you can throw them in the wash and they’re ready to be used again.
- Do you rely on saran wrap and aluminum foil to keep your leftovers fresh or to wrap your sandwich? Opt instead for long lasting beeswax wrap; just rinse with soap and water, let dry, and you’re good to go.
- Many people use disposable cotton rounds to take off their makeup or apply toners. Instead of going through all this disposable cotton, try reusable cotton rounds that can be washed and reused. You can buy these ones or you can make your own following these guidelines!
Stuck with old items or containers you don’t want to dispose of? Here are my favorite ways to repurpose items so that they don’t go to waste:
- Reuse clothing scraps from old or worn out clothes for rags or cotton rounds, or if you’re a little craftier you can sew simple produce bags (instructions here!) so you don’t need to use plastic to hold your fruit and veggies at the grocery store.
- If you have little scraps of different materials (cardboard, scrap paper, plastic straws that you weren’t quick enough to refuse at Starbucks, beads, buttons, etc.), these can be repurposed for kids’ arts and crafts! If you don’t have kids, there are organizations like Scrap SF that will take donations of these materials for people to use and play with.
- One trick that I use constantly is reusing boxes and food containers as drawer storage. Plastic berry containers that I get at the farmers’ market are perfect for my socks, and cardboard boxes work great for organizing silverware or cables. Just make sure to wash and dry thoroughly.
The best part? You don’t need to spend tons of money to go out and get all of these products new.
Almost all of these reusable replacements can be super easily found around the house or second hand (did someone say circular economy?). For instance, many people donate clothing to thrift shops in good quality tote bags, meaning second-hand stores have a plethora for free or super cheap. Feel free to reuse the glass bottle that you bought your iced tea in yesterday or the glass jar that your peanut butter came in to carry your water instead of going out to buy a new one. Thrift stores are also a great place to find reusable cutlery, mugs, or old t-shirts to use for rags.
The same goes for buying items from a refill store! We get lots of questions about what the best containers are to use to refill on bulk items like laundry detergent or dish soap. The answer? Whatever containers you have! Of course you’re welcome to make your kitchen look like Instagram with matching mason jars, but reusing the containers you already have at home (like your old laundry detergent and dish soap bottles) works just as well, saves you money, and uses fewer resources because you don’t need to buy new items. Win-win!