Thompson: Reduce and reuse before you recycle

Madison Thompson

Editor’s Note: All opinion section content reflects the views of the individual author only and does not represent a stance taken by The Collegian or its editorial board.

Rams will drink a bottle of Coca-Cola, throw it in the recycling bin — with the lid still on — and go about their day, thinking they did what they could. But that bottle doesn’t just disappear after it’s thrown out. In fact, it will be in our environment longer than any of us will, even after we die.


We’ve all heard the saying “reduce, reuse, recycle.” It was practically ingrained in our consciousness as children; Jack Johnson even wrote a song about it for our generation. Why is it that Americans seem to completely ignore the first two points and skip straight to recycling as the means to solving our waste problem?

In 1976, Congress passed the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, which gives the Environmental Protection Agency the ability to govern how we dispose of both hazardous and non-hazardous waste.

Today, about 25% of everything consumers place in the recycling bin can’t be recycled by the programs that collect them. This contamination increases costs significantly to process recyclables.

Almost all of the plastic that has ever been created is still floating around on the planet in one form or another. People in the United States are particularly shielded from the realities, as we used to export our recycling to China. Even after China stopped accepting almost all U.S. waste, the U.S. still exports their waste to other Southeast Asian countries.

This propelled the waste industry, and since then it has grown enormously in the 21st century. It is an industry that is expected to reach a market size of $530 billion by 2025. Essentially, everything that is ever created will become part of the waste industry at some point, so there’s not much political push to eliminate its inputs.

The venture has been so successful that China’s first female billionaire, Zhang Yin, seized the market and grew her paper recycling business into an empire. The business venture made sense, as many American recycling centers were not equipped to process the different kinds of materials that producers were creating.

We collectively need to move past this mindset that once a product is out of our hands and in the recycling, it’s not our problem anymore.”

The burden of responsibility shouldn’t be entirely on consumers. However, we could all do our part to focus on reducing and reusing before recycling. Our society prioritizes purchasing new goods over repairing what we already have.

We collectively need to move past this mindset that once a product is out of our hands and in the recycling, it’s not our problem anymore. If we lived with a zero waste mindset, we could cut back on wastefulness.

As consumers, it’s partially our responsibility to learn about the products we purchase and how they can best be disposed of. At the same time, industries need to be held accountable for the way they produce their products and what happens with them at the end of their lifespan.


They shouldn’t get to create endless amounts of plastic and wipe their hands clean of it after they’ve been sold. Corporations like Coca-Cola should be held accountable for the waste they’re creating and should foot the bill to clean it up.

In the meantime, Rams can do their part and remember to reduce and reuse, not just recycle. 

Madison Thompson can be reached at or on Twitter @heyymadison.