Rethinking Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

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written by Sarah Wise-Leach

“It’s a way to escape the excesses of the world around us — the excesses of consumerism, material possessions, clutter, having too much to do, too much debt, too many distractions, too much noise… Minimalism is a way of eschewing the non-essential in order to focus on what’s truly important, what gives our lives meaning, what gives us joy and value.”

- The Minimalists on the question “Why be a minimalist?”

For Global Recycling Day, I want to engage in a conversation that has been going on in the environmental community about the importance of moving away from seeing recycling as a solution to our current environmental situation and moving towards a focus on reducing and reusing. For me, the Zero Waste Movement and The Minimalism Movement both provided me a framework to shift my own focus.

I became a minimalist over the summer between my sophomore and junior years in college after everything I owned was stolen. I had nothing remaining other than the clothes I was wearing, my laptop, and purse. At nineteen, I found myself in the terrifying position of having to start from scratch, rebuilding everything I had owned and lost. However, I had the budget of a nineteen-year-old and the time of an unemployed college student on summer break. So, I threw myself into researching what I needed, what I didn’t, and how to tell the difference between the two.

It was during this journey that I stumbled upon the Capsule Closet Movement. This movement, born out of the environmentalist online community, is made up of people resisting fast fashion and drawing inspiration from older habits of buying less clothing and of higher quality in order to save money, reduce the consumption of resources and output of pollution, as well find peace in less clutter and more inspiration in their wardrobe. Many of the leading icons of the capsule wardrobe movement also identify as minimalists, which led me to the Minimalist Movement. The most significant turning point in my journey towards minimalism came when I began listening to “The Minimalists” podcast. Best selling authors, Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, known as “The Minimalists,” are often attributed to making the minimalist movement take off after their 2014 TED Talk, “A Rich Life With Less Stuff.” After growing up in financially insecure households, these two men spent their twenties and thirties climbing the corporate ladder, hoping to achieve more “success” than their parents. They first met while they were both making six-figure salaries at Fortune 500 Companies. When describing how he found minimalism, Joshua Fields Millburn tells the devastating story of returning to his mother’s home to sort out her possessions after her passing, having experienced the end of his marriage earlier that same month. It was then that he realized he had been governing his life by what he was taught were the goals of The American Dream: having a high paying job, a nice car, a big house, and money to buy all the newest technology. He found minimalist icons like Leo Babauta, author of the blog “Zen Habits,” who offered a new perspective on what a ‘happy’ and ‘fulfilling’ life could look like: one that is subversive of the materially-focused narrative of the American Dream and offers more peace and meaning. He describes the phenomenon of our current consumerism this way:

“There is in most of us an underlying desire to buy cool stuff. It stems from fears and insecurities, I think, but it is exploited by corporations and advertising… Unfortunately, it means we are always wanting to buy more, and always spending more. Which means we must either get into debt, or work more to earn more. Or both. We need to stop and ask ourselves — what is it all for? Why are we working so hard in order to buy so much, to have so much, to be burdened and cluttered by so much? It’s just too much. Minimalists say, ‘I’m getting off this merry-go-round. I opt out.’”

Minimalism is the most effective lifestyle change that can be made to affect your overall environmental impact because it focuses on the first and most important step of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle: reduce. Minimalism teaches us to widen our view on all our habits of consumption, including changing dietary choices, refusing disposable items, or resisting fast fashion. Minimalism can offer a big-picture perspective, encouraging all of us to look closer at everything we bring into our lives. That is why many minimalists are going zero waste. Check out my next blog post for my story of going zero waste and my practical tips!

“Minimalism is a tool to rid yourself of life’s excess in favor of focusing on what’s important—so you can find happiness, fulfillment, and freedom.”

Logan Avant