Every time we make a purchase we send messages to companies. Are you using your purchase decisions to make a positive difference for the environment? “Precycling” is a shopping strategy that can help you take steps before making a purchase to ensure that the things we buy can be recycled, composted, or repaired and reused when we’re done with them. 

Precycling is a simple yet powerful idea that allows us, as shoppers, to impact the practices of online and physical retailers. Getting more aggressive by asking questions and exploring how a retailer’s recycling process works may take some time and a bit of nerve, but it can pay environmental dividends. 

Can you make a difference? Yes. Consumer spending accounts, on average, for about 70% of the U.S. economy. While you may feel like your purchases don’t add up to much, companies must listen when shoppers start to express the same environmental goals at the store. Even non-consumer spending on industrial machinery used to make consumer products, like cars and coffee makers, is affected by our buying decisions.

Precycling in Practice

Before buying a product, ask the seller about their recycling policies and commitments. There are different steps for online and retail shopping. Both send a strong message that if there is no clear end-of-life solution for the product (and its packaging) you are considering, you’ll look for other options. 

If you’re shopping online, before you click the Buy button, send an email to customer support. Find out if they have recycling information or links to local recycling centers. 

At a physical store, talk to the staff and see if they can show you the recycling bins or explain the recycling process. Ask them what happens to the materials collected at the store. Get the salesperson thinking and telling their manager, “Wow, customers really care about keeping stuff out of landfills.” If the retailer doesn’t have clear recycling practices and the product doesn’t describe how and where it can be recycled, consider not buying — and let the store manager know why.

An aggressive approach to precycling can help you reduce your immediate environmental impact because you’ll buy less while encouraging businesses to take responsibility and help customers recycle. Your questions and choices also make store staff think about their recycling practices and what they promise to do for the planet. Precycling questions can inspire positive changes within a company and motivate it to become more eco-conscious.

Remember, getting to a sustainable society will be a long journey. The more we all ask for circular solutions, from easy recyclability of products and packaging to local options to compost fiber packaging and food waste and the ability to repair a product to extend its life, the more likely that the topic will be discussed by store managers, regional vice presidents, the CEO, and board of directors at companies. Each small action, like precycling, adds up and makes a difference. By being mindful of how our purchases impact the environment, we can help reduce waste and move closer to a greener future.

Six Questions for Precyclers

For all retailers: 

  • What are your recycling policies and commitments? 
  • Do you have recycling or take-back services available to customers or provide links to local recycling centers? 
  • How does the product facilitate easy recycling?
  • Do you have a clear recycling plan for the product and its packaging?

At physical retailers:

  • Can you show me the recycling bins or explain the recycling process?
  • What happens to the materials collected at the store? 

The next time you shop, start by asking about recycling options and use what you learn to make a sustainable choice. Together, we can create a better world for ourselves and future generations. 

By Mitch Ratcliffe

Mitch is the publisher at Earth911.com and Director of Digital Strategy and Innovation at Intentional Futures, an insight-to-impact consultancy in Seattle. A veteran tech journalist, Mitch is passionate about helping people understand sustainability and the impact of their decisions on the planet.