Reuse? Reduce? Recycle? It depends…

Recycling logoReduce, reuse and recycle is the battle cry of environmentalists. Lately though, I’ve been wondering whether the slogan doesn’t need to be broken down and adapted to specific cases.

Now before I get accused of undermining the environmental movement and shooting on my own troops, let me say this: people respond to messages in different ways–and often not the way you would expect them to. Hence this blog entry.

Take Java, Indonesia for example, which is characterized (among other) by an increasingly urban population and an emerging middle class (60% of the island’s population in 2018 says UNESCAP). For these people, material goods are becoming more accessible and they can realistically aspire to a life with a car, air-con unit, a house, perhaps even a washing machine — these are items that provide them relative freedom and social standing.

These items also represent increased pressure on the national energy grid (hence more burning of coal), and also a vastly increased quantity of electronic and other waste down the road. Meanwhile, PLN is already struggling to keep up with electricity demand and city landfills are overflowing.

Now think of the word reduce—can we realistically expect to urge this consumer group NOT to purchase goods that they can suddenly afford? As environmentalists, denying the symbols of economic freedom to people who are joining the middle class is unlikely to be the best approach.

This doesn’t mean we should not encourage responsible consumption (“buy what you need, not what you want”)—but emphasizing consumer soberness will only succeed in casting environmentalists as boring doomsday prophets of the Dark Ages.

Recycle on the other hand can be the entry point (or message) to get this population class to begin thinking of impacts on the environment and our health. In this case, the appeal of recycling is that it doesn’t really limit buying behaviour (“Don’t buy stuff”), but it provides an opportunity for people ‘to do something about the environment’ while still fulfilling their collective consumptive urge.

So where is reduce (and reuse) likely to work better?

Poor segments of society are in the unfortunate situation where they have no choice but to make do with what they have, and reuse as much as possible.

However, for individuals who are comfortably established in the middle class, and who have presumably satisfied most of their material needs, then calls for reducing their consumption/environmental footprint would be more adequate (e.g. do you really need to drive that car for a purchase down the road? does the air-con unit have to be set at Arctic temperatures? is there really a need for a second cell-phone?).

Admittedly, recycling has a long way to go in Indonesia before it can make a dent in the growing quantity of waste in the country. But if we don’t take into consideration the particularities of different consumer groups, and adapt our green messaging accordingly, we will be missing out on opportunities to affect people’s behaviour where it is easiest to do so.

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