06/26/2013 01:07 pm ET Updated Aug 26, 2013


In the language of conservation, we are familiar with the words "reduce" and "recycle." By "reduce" we mean "conserve," take less, consume less, a means by which we can extend limited supply or, in some cases, manage a resource in a renewable, sustainable fashion. Conservationists live by this principle; whether they protect land or marine areas, their motivation is to prolong, indeed secure, the vitality of a place or species in an antagonistic economic and cultural world. By "recycle," we mean the return of consumables to their component parts: plastic bottles to plastic toys, aluminum cans to aluminum foil, glass jars to glass windows, rubber tires to rubber gaskets, steel ships to steel girders and rebar, wood debris to wood pulp and paper. Recyclists transform our manufactured things into base materials that can be used again in the making of new products to accumulate. These two words frame a process, from the beginning of things to their rebirth as something else - all good, albeit not good enough.

But there are words in between. Talking with a friend the other day, we discussed "reuse" as such a word, different from the others, that describes the making of existing things available for exchange with others. Examples? T-shirts worn by African children, discarded in the United States and Europe and shipped in bulk to serve as new clothing for people who need it; cell phones reused in similar manner, distributed to women in India who use them to network, bank, and create small businesses; closer to home we have antique and thrift shops, garage sales, vintage clothing stores, auto rentals and bicycle networks for urban transportation, architectural salvage. In every case, existing things are reused by others for what they where made for: an efficient, monetized system that both conserves the inherent value of the item and redirects its utility from someone who doesn't need it to someone who does. Creative people have taken this idea to scale: citywide tag sales, for example, a massive urban redistribution of goods that empties attics and storage units, not into the dumpster, but to neighbors and strangers in a local exchange.

Failure to reduce, reuse, or recycle equals waste. And in a world of burgeoning population and limited resources, waste is anathema. In the context of water and ocean, examples of waste abound. Oil companies (once resource value is extracted) leave behind all sorts of things: obsolete rigs and derricks, rusting barrels, slurry and sludge, polluted land and water. Hydraulic fracturing leaves behind land bereft of agricultural capacity, polluted aquifer and surface streams, and reservoirs of poisoned water that must be contained and isolated from the already limited fresh water capacity of the locality, the region, the world. There are myriad other examples: watersheds mined and quarried, releasing toxic chemicals to become "brownfields" costing millions in public funds, attempts at pitiful clean-up of waste left behind by companies and investors long gone. Consider the location of many of our nuclear plants, not just in Fukushima, Japan, but in the United States and Europe, located on rivers and coasts for access to free cooling water but vulnerable to leaks or melt-downs and the almost insurmountable problem of how and where to store their waste.

Take the most pressing ocean example: the decline, and many argue, collapse of global fish stocks and resultant catastrophic loss of protein for global sustenance. Will we reduce our harvest, voluntarily limit catch to conserve species for the future? Will we recycle by-catch as fertilizer, animal food, or fish products for human consumption? Will we reuse our coral reefs, coastal wetlands, mangrove swamps, and other marine habitats for their essential, undisrupted incubation of fish species, their vast potential for medicinal development, or their massive contribution to water filtration and storm protection?

Our forebears reused things all the time. Why can't we? Walk the beaches and see what you will find: so many things we didn't need, didn't recycle, didn't think someone else might want. We just threw it all away.