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What Exactly Is Precycling?

recycling bins on city street
Here’s why you should start precycling, even though you’ve probably never heard of it.

In 2013, Americans generated about 254 million tons of trash, or about 4.4 pounds per person, per day. Luckily, we also recycled and composted about 87 million tons of that — roughly 34%, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

It’s not a bad start — the effort is the carbon dioxide emissions equivalent of keeping 39 million cars off the road for a year. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that we’re using more and more resources to make everything from packaging and food to durable goods like toasters. In fact, in 2000, Americans consumed 46% more materials per capita than in 1975, according to the EPA. Sadly, a lot of that stuff is headed straight for the landfill: 50% to 75% of the resources we use become trash within just one year.

What you can do to help

You probably already know about the three R’s — reduce, reuse, and recycle. Recycling is rapidly on the rise in the U.S., which is terrific, but it also requires a lot of energy.

Even better is reusing stuff we already have. And an improvement over that is reducing the amount of stuff we buy, use, recycle, or toss out to begin with. This is the idea of “precycling,” a concept that considers sustainable materials management through conservation of resources, waste reduction, and minimizing environmental impact.

How does precycling work?

Think of it this way: You could use ant traps to rid your kitchen of bugs, or you could wipe up your crumbs after breakfast and reduce the chance of problems from the get-go. This is how precycling works. It helps prevent pollution and waste, saves energy, reduces greenhouse gas emissions, saves money, and uses products and materials to their fullest extent.

Of all the types of stuff we toss out, containers and packaging make up the biggest chunk, at almost one-third, according to the EPA. Think about it: Whether it’s a candy bar or a cellphone you’ve just purchased, chances are, you threw something in the garbage before you took a bite or made a call.

It really does make a difference

Even for stuff we can recycle, we could be doing a far better job. For example, in the United States, we have the capacity to recycle 2 billion pounds of soda bottles annually, but according to the EPA, we’re collecting just 1.4 billion. The remainder are ending up in landfills and, too frequently, in oceans, where they’re wreaking havoc.

Cities such as San Francisco have started precycling on a municipal level by banning plastic bags at grocery stores. (The state of California followed suit last fall.) But precycling isn’t just good for the environment — it can be good for the bottom line too. Walmart, for example, has streamlined product packaging, allowing it to fit more products on trucks, in containers, and on shelves, which saves space, fuel, and money.

Although you’re probably not distributing millions of products through your home each year, you can apply the same economic principles of precycling — buy in bulk, reduce packaging, streamline purchases — to help you go green and save money.

Get started

There are lots of easy ways to precycle; here are 12 ways you can start right now.

  • Buy in bulk.
  • Choose products with less packaging or recyclable packaging.
  • Choose foods that come in their own packaging, such as bananas and oranges.
  • Consume less physical stuff. (Do you really need another T-shirt?)
  • Use concentrated laundry and dish soaps.
  • Stop buying bottled water and get a reusable container.
  • Keep reusable bags in your car, purse, or briefcase and use them when shopping.
  • Donate items you no longer want or need instead of tossing them to the curb.
  • Buy used goods.
  • Share, borrow, and rent things when possible.
  • Maintain and repair goods to make them last longer.
  • Purchase reusable rather than disposable items.