The Waste Hierarchy is an established model for thinking about how to reduce waste, and divert it from incinerators and landfills. Most people have heard the simplest version of this over and over again: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. This has become a mantra of the green movement. It is very effective as a mnemonic device and people have widely accepted it as a rule of thumb. Something that is lost in the repetition of the mantra, however, is that this is a hierarchy. It is meant to be read: reduce, reuse, recycle, in that order. It seems that in the mind of the average consumer this has too often been reduced to recycle, recycle, recycle, because that is the easiest thing to do to reduce the amount of stuff in your trash bin.
Why is this important? Because different strategies have varying degrees of impact. Recycling something does keep it out of the landfill, but most recycling processes use energy. Often not as much energy as the initial process of creating it from raw materials, but still a non-negligible amount. At the very least, that material has to be transported to some distant place to be reused. So what if that piece of recyclable waste didn't exist? Or what it if was smaller, or lighter? What if instead of three layers of packaging made from three different materials, there was one layer of one type of material? Less packaging usually means less raw materials consumed, less energy used, less waste in the production process, and less waste at home when you use the product. The overall impact is much greater, and it exists in every level of the life of the product.
The difficulty here is that it is harder to control the reduction of materials. Often, it just comes to you 'as is' at the point of purchase. But there are a few simple things you can do. If you buy vegetables at the Farmer's Market, and bring your own bag, you can get a weeks worth of food with hardly any packaging materials at all. Some items like mushrooms will often come in a paper bag to control humidity, but that bag is going to be recyclable or compostable (there appears to be ambiguity about whether or not 'compostable' is a real word, but it is very useful, so I am sticking with it).
This is preferable to getting a separate plastic bag for each vegetable and then putting all those bags into other plastic bags, and getting some items in Styrofoam trays wrapped in cellophane. Not that I am judging, that is what I end up doing when I go to a regular grocery. You don't know where that cart has been (or more accurately what has been inside it). Also, for some reason, I am embarrassed to bring my own bag into Ralph's (I still do, it's just harder), but it seems natural as breathing at the FM or Trader Joe's. Why is that? I guess it is because I am afraid of being labeled a loony by the 'normal' people at the super market, but I feel like I might be the most conservative person at the TJ's, and there the bags are proof that I am hip enough.
To get a little broader perspective of the hierarchy, here is a graphic produced by Lane County as part of their Recycler's Handbook, with the relative importance of each strategy represented by it place and the size of its level on the pyramid (used without permission, but I think this is 'fair use'):
All of these issues are in fact more complicated, and I intend to go further into each of them. I will post something later with more detail about how to reduce and reuse materials, but for now I will provide you with a few links about how to recycle, because that topic is pretty well covered by people who have been generating these resources for longer than I have been thinking about them.
For a good overview of what can and cannot be recycled, check out the Consumer Recycling Guide. It covers the basics about which plastics are recyclable (because not all are) and where you can recycle them (because your municipality may not take certain kinds). The link above is a guideline however, and each city and county chooses what they will recycle and how they will accept or collect it. In Lane, for example, there is the Recycler's Handbook. Search for your local waste management website, and they will tell you everything that you need to know about recycling in your area.
If you want to know where you can drop off batteries for recycling, check out Call2Recycle (serves the US and Canada). Batteries of all sizes frequently contain heavy metals like lead, sometimes contain mercury, acid, or some other toxic substance, and that stuff can get out if you just toss your batteries in the trash. Different types of batteries need to be recycled in different ways, but generally speaking big chains that specialize in electronics will take most batteries, and any place that sells car batteries is required to take used car batteries.
Many cities and counties cannot accept used electronics and computers. Luckily, there are many programs, some local and some national, that accept these products. The EPA has a web page with links to many of these organizations. Here in Oregon, the DEQ is working with manufacturers to bring us the Oregon E-Cycles program. It is very important to recycle these items, because many of them have small amounts of toxins which will end up in the environment if they are just thrown out. Mercury is particularly nasty, because it can stay in the ecosystem for a long time, poisoning plants, animals and humans all the way up the food chain, and cycled back through the same chain over and over before it achieves anything like safe deposition.
Speaking of mercury, all fluorescent light bulbs contain a little. Home Depot recycles the CFLs that are being promoted for home use to replace incandescent bulbs, and most local recycling programs accept all other types of fluorescent lights.