Reduce Comes Before Recycling

Recycling is like dieting. We do it afterwards. We recycle after buying and using stuff and we diet after overeating.

Bales of Plastic Containers Awaiting RecyclingReduce is the first of the 3 R’s (reduce, reuse, recycle) for good reason. There is no need to recycle packaging or products we didn’t buy or use. Calories we didn’t eat do not need to be worked off at the gym.

Manufacturing, transporting, and distributing the products we buy and use consumes energy, water, and resources, and generates waste. So does collecting, transporting, and processing recyclable materials.

Sometimes I wonder if we use recycling to give ourselves a free pass to continue doing what we’re doing. As long as we recycle we don’t need to change. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of recycling and I’m not suggesting a moratorium on shopping. I am proposing we be mindful about what we buy and challenge ourselves to reduce first and then recycle.

Food Shopping – Packaging Reduction

After observing the volume of recycling our small household amassed each week, I started pondering ways to reduce the amount packaging coming into the house. Buying food is a weekly activity so seemed like a good starting point. Over a period of time some of the changes we’ve made include:

  • Buying more food in the bulk in aisle.
  • Using reusable shopping and produce bags.
  • Cooking with whole foods more and packaged foods less.
  • Purchasing larger sizes when it makes sense (I draw the line at a gallon of mayo in the fridge).
  • Buying locally grown food as much as possible.

For this post, I decided to review the impact these changes have had on what I buy and eat for breakfast and grade myself on whether packaging was reduced or not.

Breakfast Revamp – Packaging and Calorie Reduction

No one would describe me as a morning person. For me, weekday breakfasts have to be fast and easy to prepare.


We’ve been buying whole coffee beans and grinding them at home for years. Previously we used the bags provided at the grocery market to transport and store the coffee beans and recycled the empty bags. I began saving the bags, refilling them at the store, and recycling them when they wore out. At some point it occurred to me we could transport Author's Coffee Mug, Bulk Coffee Beans, and Bulk Non-Dairy Creamercoffee beans in one of our reusable mesh produce bags and store them in a container from our collection at home, a large one that held nuts in a former life works well.

Buying and storing coffee now involves zero throwaway packaging.

Packaging Grade: A

Non-Dairy Creamer

I used to buy non-dairy creamer in 22-ounce plastic containers and recycle the empties. That changed when I spotted my creamer brand in a 3.5-pound container while shopping at a warehouse store. Now I buy the large canister and use a 22-ounce container as a dispenser.

The canister holds over 2 ½ times the amount of creamer with only an incremental increase in additional packaging and a 30% reduction in cost per serving. Overall there is less material to recycle.

Packaging Grade: B


My standard cereal is a name brand that comes in a cardboard box with a plastic liner. I’ll eat granola, seemingly the only cereal available in bulk in our area, but I’d prefer something else. I decided to skip this one for now and tackle it later.

Packaging Grade: Incomplete


Author's Packaged Cereal, Milk Carton, Bowl and SpoonI was in the habit of buying milk by the half-gallon, but I mostly use it on cereal so frequently ended up pouring spoiled milk down the drain. I admit I’m picky about milk taste so other people might have drunk it. I switched to buying milk in a third of a quart size. It’s not as economical but it eliminates milk waste and the smaller container means less to recycle.

Packaging Grade: Pass

Fruit Juice

An 8-ounce glass of fruit juice contains 110 to 170 calories (orange at the low end and grape at the high end). I know eating whole fruit is more nutritious and has fewer calories. But fruit juice tastes good and I used to drink it every day.

When I was a kid, we mostly drank juice made from frozen juice concentrate and I carried the habit into adulthood. When we moved to our current home, I discovered the grocery market in our small town generally had a great selection except for frozen juice. I started buying juice in cardboard cartons and plastic bottles.

Eventually throwing empty juice containers in the recycling bin began to bother me and I was also looking for ways to cut calories without giving up my Friday chocolate bar. At first I just drank 4 ounces of juice instead of 8, fewer cartons and calories. One morning I decided to stop drinking juice. Now I eat whole fruit instead and occasionally drink juice. I don’t miss drinking juice every day, and it’s a treat when I do.

Whole Fruit - Apple, Orange, and BananaChanging from fruit juice to whole fruit reduced recycling and saves hundreds of dollars a year. I figure I’ve eliminated at least 25,000 calories from my annual intake, the equivalent of 7.1 pounds. This is a good thing.

Packaging Grade: B+

Reduce First Then Recycle Challenge

The above exercise demonstrates small changes can benefit the environment as well as our waistlines and wallets. It shows that unintended consequences can be good and change isn’t a linear process. If we get stuck in one area, we can move on and come back to it later.

Take a look at your own food shopping and buying habits and challenge yourself to reduce first and then recycle. Share your ideas and accomplishments in the comments section.

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Author: Linda Poppenheimer

Linda researches and writes about environmental topics to share information and to spark conversation. Her mission is to live more lightly on Earth and to persuade everyone else to do the same.

One thought on “Reduce Comes Before Recycling”

  1. Dear Readers,

    While reading the Reduce Comes Before Recycling piece, it dawned on me that some Carbon Neutral Practices tend to Justify Combustion rather than reduce it.

    Thank you for reading this reply.


    Mark Casson

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