OPINION: Environmental sustainability - It's about making the smartest decision with lowest usage of resources

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Dixon is a first-year Environmental
Fellow from Evansville, Indiana.
SAM CARAVANA / THE DEPAUW

When anyone hears the word “eco-friendly” he or she usually thinks of the word “recycling.” Though this is a helpful habit to practice, is it really the best way to embrace environmentalism? This custom applies to only one part of the environmental movement—the disposal side. The contrasting side is the consumption aspect to sustainability. Is it best to allocate funds to reduce consumption patterns or to make recycling more enticing to the public?

Is the smartest move to direct funds to recycling over consumer expenditure? The benefits of targeting the waste aspect is that people would be more inclined to support more intense recycling efforts because the general public would not have to change as much about their lifestyles. For example, increasing the size of recycling bins and their numbers would require no more effort than most people are already investing in the environmental movement. Another idea others have suggested is to associate fees with trash and make recycling free. This adds a monetary incentive to be more environmentally conscious without the addition of labor. The negative effects of this strategy would be that humans would still be producing the same amount waste whether this waste is recyclable or not. We would still be inclined to buy just as many Starbucks drinks, get just as much takeout in disposable containers and continue to buy products in mass quantities. Though the public would recycle more, we would still be using up the same resources.

In contrast, our targeting consumption patterns would reduce the number of natural assets used. This would help us preserve what biotic environments still exist and form sustainable habits for future generations growing up with new consumption patterns. The downside to this approach is that someone would have to convince the general public that a reduction of purchases is indirectly beneficial. In other words, the public would have to understand that even though they may have the money to consume more luxury items, they should not indulge in as many purchases, specifically disposable items such as water bottles or bulk packages of individual snack packs. Because we have had the ability to become a throwaway society (one in which we buy products with the intention of throwing them away more quickly than most other populations), a reduction in consumption would be difficult when the people could not see the habitats they are preserving. But if we started buying less, we would have less to recycle as well.

In an ideal world, we could embrace both ends of the spectrum by distributing funds to campaigns to reduce the consumption habits of developed countries and making recycling even more common and efficient. Unfortunately, money is a resource too, and limited resources mean limited environmentally conscious activity. Therefore, we must make the smartest decision with the resources we currently have available. Either method has at least two requirements for success. The first is awareness: people need to understand why a change in lifestyle is important. The second is a willingness to change with no immediately tangible result.