We tend to embrace or reject the 3 Rs of conservation blindly, either accepting all the proclaimed tenets and benefits of Reduce, Reuse and Recycle or rejecting them out-of-hand. The 3 Rs are either the saviour of the environment or a sham and scam. Yet, there is an element of truth to the claim that Reduce, Reuse and Recycle is a frivolous and counterproductive exercise. Simultaneously, there is an abundance of evidence that, integrated responsibly into our lifestyle, the 3Rs of conservation is a sustainable and viable concept.
The paradox of 3R conservation being both a positive and negative impact on our environment is best illustrated by three examples that I have experienced.
The first occurred three decades ago, before concern for our environment was in vogue. My ex-father-in-law, a machinist and welder, was relocating four hundred miles distant to set up a business as a machinist, in farming country. Over the years, he had accumulated more than nine tons of scrap metal, with pieces as small as three inches long, and a collage of armatures and windings, as well as partially assembled equipment. In his original shop, he often found uses for a few of these pieces each month, and was adept at reusing old scrap, reconstituted into workable parts and repair for clients. However, he opted to gather all this scrap metal and cart it across the country, in seven trips. His gas mileage on the outbound excursion averaged four miles per gallon, ten per gallon returning empty. Each trip consumed 140 gallons of fuel.
At the time, scrap metal sold for about $35 per ton, while fuel costs averaged $1.25 per gallon. His trips cost him a net loss of $125, plus the impact of leaded fuel on the environment. Clearly, in this instance, the most beneficial option would have been to sell the scrap locally and purchase needed materials at the new location. Reusing the steel was admirable, but not environmentally conscious.
The second instance involved a carpenter who opted to use less drywall on a construction project, by integrating numerous small pieces and fragments into the building, instead of discarding these fragments and utilizing full sheets. The finished job showed poorly, and required an excessive amount of drywall compound and fiberglass tape to seam the joints. In the end, more cost was incurred and more environmentally sensitive material was used, due to his efforts at reducing consumption of drywall.
The last example seems counterintuitive. A local municipal government implemented a recycling program, which included recycling of box (corrugated) cardboard. The program was similar to a neighbouring municipal program, except for the fact that the first locals government simply burned the cardboard, while the second shipped it over two hundred miles to the nearest pulp plant, where it was recycled. This material has limited recovery uses, however, and results in high input costs for a poor product. Ultimately, the material will release its carbon into the atmosphere, as doe the burning by the first locals authority. However, there are less inputs incurred by burning than by shipping and recycling.
There are myriad ongoing debates as to whether specific 3R efforts truly are beneficial to the environment. In general, they are. However, a more conscientious examination of inputs versus result should be undertaken before we blindly follow every 3R strategy.