11/16/2010 08:24 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

You Are What You Waste

On National Recycling Day we celebrate recycling and try to raise awareness. One of the first acts of environmental responsibility most children learn is recycling. Taking something out of the waste stream and sending off to parts unknown to be remade into something else. That's great, it has been a huge step forward and we should be proud of what has been accomplished working together to make recycling part of our infrastructure. But recycling is an imperfect process. Re-purposing goods for reuse, although better than manufacturing goods from raw materials, still requires enormous amounts of energy and water. Many goods we think are going to be recycled end up in landfill anyway due to carelessness, changes in the market for recycled goods and laziness. As the recent video, "The Story of Electronics" shows, workers salvaging materials from electronics in third world countries have direct exposure to toxics that certainly damage their health and shorten their lives. Still, no one would argue that we shouldn't bother to recycle, but there is a lot of room for improvement in how we do it.

There is, however, a far superior way to reduce use of natural resources and the impact of so-called trash. We need to begin making a commitment to stop using items that are unnecessary or are manufactured in an unsustainable way when a sustainable alternative is available. If you open your eyes to this problem, you will see an enormous amount of unnecessary waste and environmental impact for the most trivial of reasons. It's easy to quickly come up with a list of 100 or more things that you use routinely that are completely unnecessary. Even the things that we use that we feel are essential, we use in quantities greater than needed and waste the excess.

But the problem goes much deeper than having, wanting or using too much stuff. It's a deeply ingrained systemic problem that results in damage to our environment and our health in ways that go way beyond trash. The demand for excess or superfluous goods wastes energy, it consumes water, it causes huge loads of chemicals to be dumped into our environment, it causes negative health and societal impacts by introducing an ever greater flow of toxins into our food chain. It is responsible for loss of habitat, destruction of forests and an increase in poverty world wide.

Wasting is a state of mind. It is our societal norm, an entitlement we all feel we have. The good news is that the need for more and more consumption, more and more plastic, more and more electronic gear, more and more everything is an illusion on an enormous scale. We have the ability to simply opt out, feel better and save money.

Several years ago I saw a graffiti on a San Francisco wall that said "Buying won't stop your crying". I'd suggest a companion slogan. "Wasting won't stop your wanting." You'd be surprised how easy it is to adapt to a world where you don't use plastic drinking straws or a leaf blower. Try it, one superfluous step at a time.