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  • Writer's pictureAlex Eaves

Recycling Is Overrated: My Personal Journey with Waste

As I wrote about in my previous post, "Recycling Is Overrated: We've Been Misled," I grew up recycling because I thought it was going to solve the waste problem. But I also grew up with a dad that saved all sorts of typical recycling and waste to use "someday." I didn't really understand it at first, but I certainly benefitted from it. My first skateboard ramp was actually an old door leaning on top of wooden railroad ties. It wasn't until my adult years that I finally understood the benefits of reusing.

My first skateboard ramp. I could easily move it and use it in the basement during the winter too!

In 2003, I started my company STAY VOCAL (originally VOCAL) as a skateboard and apparel brand. At the same time, I was also a touring merchandiser for rock bands. I was not only selling shirts at concerts around the world, but also ordering everything. And in 2004, one order changed everything. I received a batch of shirts for one of the bands and it was printed incorrectly. It was just a minor error, but understandably, the artist wasn't happy and didn't want to sell them. And when I called the printers about the problem, that's when I found out what happens to misprinted shirts. Those 144 brand new, never worn, shipped from California to Pennsylvania T-Shirts were going to be shipped back to California to be shredded and turned into rags. And that's when a lightbulb went off and exploded in my head. I'm a solutions guy, not a problems guy. So, I quickly figured out a better option and ended up buying the shirts at a discounted price and having my brand's patches sewn over the original design.

Alex Eaves with reuse T-Shirts
The first STAY VOCAL cover up patch shirt: "Make Yourself Heard Double Face"

After that incident, I started seeing the waste problem everywhere I looked and I wanted to use my brand to create the solutions. I used to drink coffee out of disposable cups, so I started making STAY VOCAL travel mugs. I used to get plastic grocery bags, so I created a line of canvas reusable bags. And of course, I made more and more reuse shirts.

Original STAY VOCAL Reuse Mugs and Bags
The first line of STAY VOCAL travel mugs and reusable canvas bags.

At the beginning of 2008, I made the decision to switch STAY VOCAL to an entirely reuse apparel brand; no more skateboards; no more new items. Thinking back, this made complete sense. Reuse had been part of the brand since day 1, as I raised the money to buy the first batch of skateboards by printing on thrifted shirts and selling them at concerts. Shortly after this decision, I entered a best small business idea contest for my brand and I won! As people were starting to take notice, I knew that I was on to something.

The Big Check presentation for winning the "Best Small Business Idea" contest.

Because of my first hand experience with waste and reuse solutions with clothing and accessories, I was starting to look at all waste in a different way. But I was also looking at recycling in a different way. Just because a plastic water bottle was recyclable, why wouldn't I just reuse a glass one? It would save me money, time, and resources too.

Alex Eaves at the Environmental Protection Office' Earth Day Event
I was invited to the Environmental Protection Agency's 2008 private Earth Day event in Boston.

Around that time, I came up with the slogan, REUSE! Because You Can’t Recycle The Planet. I couldn’t understand why people weren’t talking about reuse as a solution more than recycling. Why was there so much emphasis on recycling instead of reusing? When we recycle, we're wasting energy, time, money and resources. When we reuse, we're just using something again. I thought it was a no-brainer message that was not getting enough attention.

STAY VOCAL Reuse Booth in Chico, CA
Summer 2008: The STAY VOCAL "Reuse" Booth at the Chico, CA Farmer's Market

A few months later, I designed a graphic for the slogan and the first series of REUSE! T-Shirts quickly followed. The REUSE! in bold letters is for emphasis and the open letters in the rest of the design is to represent that recycling is not the complete solution to save the planet that we had been told.

Original 2008 Ad for the first REUSE! T-Shirts

Since that time, I've made thousands of shirts with REUSE! Because You Can’t Recycle The Planet. on it. The slogan's message became a core component of the talks that I do. In 2015, I released my first documentary film with that as the title. But all these years later, I'm still seeing the same problems with waste and recycling. And in many ways, they've actually gotten worse.

So, how did we get here? Why are people stuck on recycling? How and why is it not working? What’s it going to take to get people to see the easier and more effective solution? Because the fact is, it wasn't always this way. And it doesn't have to be.

Talk to you next week.

Coffee Shop Landfill and Recycling Containers
Coffee Shop in 2024: Given the options, customers regularly just put trash and recycling in both.


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