International Global Citizen's Award

encouraging young people to become better global citizens

Some personal thoughts from a global citizen / 1 Beyond and behind the slogans

Beyond and behind the slogans

There is no doubt that pithy, short and memorable slogans can help make a difference to our behaviour. They can also be useful in campaigns to spread a message to others.

In areas relating to global citizenship, one of the most widely used slogans is:
Reduce Reuse Recycle
Very often this slogan is accompanied by an image of some kind, such as:


But the images here are of recycling. Somehow, it reduces the impact of the original three Rs, by focusing on just one of them - the idea of reducing our ecological impact by recycling.

It seems to me that the slogan is emphasising something different.

The first R is Reduce. The order matters. As far as possible, we should use less.

And we should, where possible, reuse things we already have rather than buying new. Re-using, reduces our further consumption of resources.

The third R, recycling, focuses on what happens when we have finished using something – we should recycle it, not simply send it to landfill, or for burning.

Recycling is not the first thing we should do, but the last.
This applies particularly to plastic use. The extraordinary proliferation of bottled water in plastic bottles has led to billions of tons of plastic bottles discarded after a single use. Recycling these is by far preferable to chucking them into landfill or out of a car window. It is not surprising that companies selling bottled water are encouraging recycling. They try to position themselves as responsible by encouraging us to recycle single use bottles. But we know that many of the bottles “recycled” in richer countries end up being burned, or being shipped to poorer countries where they are not recycled at all, but simply form growing mounds of rubbish, or find their way into rivers and seas. Even plastics that are recycled end up being used for only a limited range of uses. Our current use of plastic bottles depends on a continuing supply of new fossil fuel resources.

The suppliers of water in plastic bottles face no consequences for producing plastic bottles which cannot be fully recycled or which end up in the oceans

The idea of “recycling” sanitises our own wasteful use of resources. We comfort ourselves on our use of resources by thinking they are recycled. But recycling doesn’t always take place even when we send items for recycling, and the way we make things currently, not everything can be transformed into something useful when it is “recycled”.

Better by far is not to use plastic bottles at all! One of the many Rs to be added to the original three is REFUSE to use some resources.

Generations to come will be appalled that for years we consumed a unique resource – the fossil deposits of earlier organisms – for throwaway items.

The original three RS of personal sustainable behaviour – REDUCE, REUSE, RECYCLE – have been joined by additional Rs, so that there are now up to 10 Rs.

Ten Rs are far less memorable than 3 Rs, although reading the 10 Rs does help us to get a better understanding of how we can act more sustainably at a personal level. REFUSE is an important and powerful addition to the 3Rs.

Adding more Rs to the list may help us to get a broader, better understanding of how our own personal behaviour can become more sustainable.

The danger is that it reduces the importance and impact of the first, and arguably by far the most important of the Rs -     REDUCE – or use less. Or perhaps the first should be REFUSE.

The UK environmental journalist John Vidal comments on the problem:
“Telling people what they can throw out and recycle is important, but corporations and governments that are in the business of growth do not want to address the real problem: the vast and escalating quantity of plastic and other stuff that people buy, use a bit and then throw away. Along with celebrities, “influencers” and PR companies, they seek to create needs for things we never knew we wanted, and then manipulate us to buy more of everything. Bombarded by advertisements, we are then persuaded that the more we binge-shop, the more fulfilling and satisfying our lives will be.

Industries respond that some recycling rates are increasing and that targets are being met, but the fact is we are burning more fossil fuels than ever to make and then dispose of things that we just do not need. Shopping is now equated with fun and fulfilment, our public holidays have been turned into buying fests, high-street health is measured in sales, and the bosses of chain stores stand down if people don’t buy more new stuff from them each year.

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