24 November 2009

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

Reduce, reuse, recycle – this is the topic of a science fair project that my 6th grade daughter just completed. Reduce, reuse, recycle – this is also the mantra of those who want to leave the planet earth for their progeny in better shape than they inherited it in from their progenitors.

Reduce, reuse, recycle – this is moving away from being a fashion statement to be a way of life in many developed countries. It has moved from the seminar halls of academia and high-brow think-tanks to the living rooms of ordinary folks.

In India, reduce and reuse are/ were a fact of life. I still remember that as a kid, I utilized used-stationery for my home work; my father not only got one-side-typed stationery from his own office, he used to ask his other colleagues to get it for us too. I utilized that till high school – as long as I stayed with my parents. My brothers and I used fresh unused paper only to submit assignments, we took notes on one-sided typed paper. In India, if an appliance fails, even if that appliance is an electric iron, people will try and get it repaired. Of course, the fact, that repair costs are a fraction of the cost of the new appliance, plays a big role. But what plays a bigger role is the mindset of the Indian people. We as a society were/ are not born into abundance. We still have to make choices, and these choices are not choices of plenty but of necessity.

You would think that the USA, with its leadership in ideas, would be leading this movement. Nothing could be farther from the truth. As a country, as a society, as an economy we have been conditioned to believe that it is our divine right to consume. There is nothing wrong with that. Only, we have been led to believe that the consumption cycle must never stop; you must buy the new appliance, even if the old one is functioning efficiently. You must buy the new car every seven years, even if the old one is running well enough. You, the consumer, are the engine of growth; and it is your national, no, patriotic duty to consume. This is what consumers have been led to believe; even though consumption is, or at least, should be a completely personal choice. There is this group of people in California; oh no, not those crazy Californians again, who resolved to not buy anything new for one year. You would be surprised by the venomous reactions that these people got on their website – they were branded crazies, lunatics, and even traitors to the national cause.

A couple of years ago, or maybe more than a couple of years ago, when Regis Philbin used to host ‘who Wants To Be A Millionaire’, he had on his show a young Chinese man – who was not born in the USA, but had migrated to the USA, possibly at a college going age. That young man had an ‘unusual’ hobby – collecting plastic store bags. Regis, and his ‘Millionaire’ audience could not understand the motivation behind this ‘hobby’. As a fellow migrant, from a similarly placed economy, I could very easily understand the young man’s hobby. Born into deprivation, not of the life threatening kind of deprivation, but the kind that makes you, no, forces you to make the best use of your available resources, the young man was merely trying to reuse those plastic bags.

My daughter had to submit her project report; the same one the focus of which was ‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle’. She did this project on her own middle school. One of the recommendations she made in her project report was that students avoid/ minimize printing. A related, follow-up, recommendation was that students utilize both-side printing for assignments. However, one of the requirements for the project presentation was that the report be printed only on side of the paper. At home, my printer is set to automatically print on both sides; when my daughter’s report started to print on both sides, she let out a wail and I had to cancel the print job. I restarted the print job, this time with only one-sided printing enabled. By this time, though, some sheets had printed. My daughter’s first instinct was to tear up those sheets and throw them in the general trash – not in the recycling bin. The recycling gene is perhaps alien to this country. I lived in large Tennessee city for more than 4 years; it only when I was leaving that city that I discovered that the city had one recyclable trash collection facility – for a population of 200000.

If the reluctance to ‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle’ were not bad enough; the ease with which waste takes place makes me believe that we have an almost innate urge to waste. Recently, at one of my client sites, I went to the cafeteria to get some tea; I carry my preferred tea bags with me even when I travel. While I was in the process of getting my tea, I got a phone call and I stepped out to take that call. When I came back, my tea bags were gone, and the cup that I was using was gone too. I asked the cleaning lady if she knew anything about it; she confessed that she had thrown both of these away. The Cleaning lady did not appear to be a rich society woman working as a cleaning lady just for pure joy of working; she was a poor woman.

I firmly believe that we have to reduce the waste; the waste that is all around us – in our offices, in our living rooms, in our kitchens, in our hospitals. And this is not about the environment at all. To paraphrase Bill Clinton, it’s the economics, stupid. The waste is not free – it has an enormous cost. I believe that it is our reluctance to reduce, reuse, and recycle coupled with our tendency to waste that makes us one of the highest cost economies of the world.

What do you think?

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