By Denise Klarquist, Marketing & Brand Strategy Consultant, REV

In a recent New York Times Op-Ed, John Tierney, confronted the economics of recycling, asserting that in spite of significant government and media efforts to extol the virtues of recycling, it basically doesn’t make much sense, neither economically nor environmentally.

Without citing all of his arguments, (and to the horror of my REV colleagues, but bear with me) I’ll just say that Tierney has a point. It does, in many cases cost more financially to recycle — in sorting, transportation, and processing costs — than to just dump waste in landfill. And anyone who has stood contemplating a row of multicolored bins trying to decide where to put used plastic utensils knows that one’s best attempt at being a good environmental citizen can be a disappointing experience.

So why even attempt to recycle or compost at all? In fact, why not go even further? Let’s just get rid of those blue and green bins altogether. With one caveat.

Let’s not exchange them for brown ones.

Rather than find better places to redirect our refuse, let’s perhaps start by eliminating the things that get there in the first place. As many readers pointed out in their comments to Tierney’s piece, he may have overlooked two highly critical parts of the sustainability cycle: reduce and reuse, i.e., zero waste.

In all seriousness, I would never advocate for eliminating the third piece of the conservation mantra. Some things we need, they break, and they absolutely should not go in landfill (electronics are just one example), and neither should the box they came in. And it feels good to fill up that blue bin — my neighbors and I in San Francisco share a small brown trash bin that only gets filled half way each week, while our double-size blue recycle bin practically tops off. Do we feel good at the end of the week? Why yes, we do!

And there is a bigger benefit to recycling that far outweighs any short-term economic hurdles. The emotional uplift people get from doing the right thing can be actualized to encompass a wider swath of sustainability initiatives, with long-term economic and environmental upsides. We know we need to urgently address critical issues of climate change. Encouraging beneficial behaviors now is imperative if we are going to move toward that goal.

Recycling is a complex process, but in a sense it is the easy way out from a behavior standpoint because it doesn’t necessarily force us to change our consumerist mindset. But we must evolve to emphasize the concepts of reduce and reuse so they are much more ingrained in the collective and corporate psyche. Even though these practices are actually codifed in both State and Federal law, most people don’t even realize their stature.

As consumers, we have some options: reusable water bottles rather than “recyclable” plastic bottles; classic, well-constructed clothing rather than throw-away fashion; reusable shopping bags, etc. But consumers are still beholden to companies that operate in a brick and mortar retail environment of premium shelf awareness where eye-catching packaging is the norm.

The challenge of business today is to break the dated 20th-century doctrine that “the package is the product.” Companies need to reject the notion of built-in obsolescence (Apple, take note). Major retail shippers need to look not just at more fuel-efficient vehicles, but at ways they can reduce the size and number of those semis hurling down the highway by rethinking what they carry.

Increasing consumer demand is already inspiring designers to flip the marketing paradigm, turning the product itself into its own package, and creating clever solutions that reduce or eliminate waste, such as edible packaging. And of course downloadable software and entertainment is making CD and DVD packing seem old-school.

We cannot and should not ban recycling of course. But we can start to shift the conversation so that zero waste more clearly emphasize and describe reduce and reuse, and we can feel good about reducing the size of every color of our bin brigade.