To reduce is to use less. Reducing is best because if you use less of something, fewer resources are expended in making, packaging, transporting, using, and disposing of the item. If you use none at all, no resources are used.
To reuse is to use something over again. This may be using an item again for the purpose for which it was originally created or it may be using it for some other purpose, but with little expenditure of energy or resources to repurpose it.
Recycling is the most energy intensive of the three. It is usually in industrial process that involves gathering the materials that are going to be recycled and then fundamentally altering the original items. Usually the exact nature of the original item cannot be detected in the recycled item. Though cans might be made into more cans, for example, it is impossible to locate any one of the original cans. Per this definition, most "recycling" that goes on at home is actually reusing or it is the setting aside materials for a manufacturer to recycle. However, the boundary between reusing and recycling is not always black and white.
Reducing is a common topic in modern gardening. Much has been written about water conservation so I will not discuss that here. Getting rid of the lawn is a popular topic. Organic gardening is much about reducing - reducing the amount of toxic and synthetic substances used in gardening. There are some other areas of reducing that may have been discussed less and I give them five R names - wRappers, Roads, Raise, Rake, and Release.
When you get your item home from the store, what do you do first? Probably take it out of the packaging and toss the packaging. Even if you are able to recycle the packaging, it is more environmentally friendly to have never produced the packaging in the first place. You already know to bring your own bags to the store. Now look at the packaging of the items themselves. A bottle by itself is better than a bottle in a box and a lot better than a bottle in a plastic clamshell. Containers made out of materials that your municipality recycles are better than containers that cannot be recycled. If you can have the mulch or topsoil shoveled directly into your truck instead of buying it bagged, so much the better. If you know you will use a gallon of a substance before the expiration date, buy the gallon rather than buy a half gallon now and a half gallon later. A gallon container uses less material than two half gallon containers and you'll save yourself a trip to store later.
This is about transportation. The less distance something has to travel, the less energy is used and the less pollution is generated. Try to get what you can from a local producer or grower. This is not always possible, but it is something to consider. Buying American can be more than patriotic. Most nonperishable things that originate outside of North America come in by ship. There are not many air pollution laws for ships. According to the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum, more air pollution is created by ships in the Santa Barbara Channel than by the land vehicles in the same area. In the back of your subconscious, you might be thinking, "So what, that's in California, 3000 miles away." If pollution from Asia can reach North America, then pollution from California can reach Texas, Georgia, and beyond. In the end, we all live downwind from each other.
Raise your own fruits, vegetables, eggs, milk, meat, or fish. Chances are, since you are a Dave's Garden reader, you are already raising some quantity of food. Now you have another reason to feel good about it. Raising your own food reduces the resources spent in transportation. You will also reduce your worries by knowing the food was raised to your standards and ethics. Even if all you can do is grow alfalfa sprouts on the kitchen counter, every bit helps.
Raking refers to doing garden chores by hand. I'm not saying that you need to give up your rototiller or leaf blower, but there may be times when you can dig, rake, or trim by hand. I am not trying to make things hard on you. Sometimes it may ultimately be easier to do something by hand than to drag out the machinery. For example, if you just want to plant a six foot row of radishes, it may be easier to get out the shovel and dig, than to take the car out of the garage, move the sack of bird seed, pick up the mop you knocked over, wheel out the tiller, yank the starting cord 17 times, scratch your head over why the engine won't turn over, find the funnel and fill the gas tank, wipe up what you spilled... You get the idea.
Release your need for perfection. In the end, it's better for your mental health. Unless you are growing things for show or sale, learn to put up with a little imperfection. You'll find that there are some diseases and pests for which you will need to bring out the big guns, and some that will go away on their own. Not everything requires a full head-on assault. Everyone's situation is different, but in my case, I cannot give mealybugs an inch, but aphids go away on their own. Mildew on roses is a brief seasonal thing and I have never sprayed for that. You might also consider releasing your desire to grow high-maintenance, resource-intensive plants. It's up to you, of course, but if you don't really love caring for them, think of the time you'll have for other things if you give up those demanding plants.
Chances are you and your parents and grandparents have been reusing as far back as anyone can remember. Long before environmental protection became mainstream, reusing often made good sense economically and sometimes was the choice involving less effort, too. You already know about using yogurt containers to start seeds and using old t-shirts to make plant ties or old Venetian blinds to make plant tags. Here are some more Rs that are relevant to gardeners.
If you have an expensive item that breaks, you usually will not hesitate to get it repaired rather than get a new one. That is nothing new. With a cheap or old item, you might decide to throw it out and get a new one. However, in many cases, it is more environmentally friendly to repair the broken item, regardless of the replacement price. Sew up the holes in your gloves and you can get the rest of the season out of them, you might know someone at work who can weld your broken rake, and there is always another use for duct tape. Repairing doesn't always have to result in something ugly. Closely related to repairing is refinishing. Just cleaning up the old tools can work wonders. Repaint the lawn furniture and add your own artistic touch for something no one else will ever have.
Buy rugged products. Spend the extra money to get sturdy items. You'll save money in the long run if you do not have to keep buying replacements. Regardless, you'll save resources by only having to buy one. You'll also be sending a message to manufacturers that you won't buy junk.
You might find what you need at yard sales, estate sales, second-hand stores, or in classified ads. If you have any goods that you no longer need, if you can't sell them, give them away. You may not profit monetarily, but we all profit when things are reused instead of discarded. Some organizations will even come to your house to pick up the items.
Dumpster diving has its devotees. Be aware that there may be legal or safety issues, but overall, I think it's a great idea. Check the dumpsters at apartment complexes around the first and last of the month, when most people move. Often people will discard decent stuff that they don't feel like moving. I have heard of people getting nearly-dead plants from the dumpsters at nurseries and reviving them. You also might see something you like sitting out by the street for trash pickup. People can be kind of weird about other people taking their trash, or maybe they have the item set out for a friend to pick up, so ask first before you take something. If you must discard something in this fashion, put a sign on it that says "Free" so that people know that they can take it.
According to the definition used above, recycling is an industrial process. Aside from some artisan activities like blacksmithing or glassblowing, most people cannot do this at home. However, the recycling industry cannot exist if there is no demand for items made out of recycled material. The recycling of metals has been going on for as long as people have been using metals. You won't see much hoopla and promotion about recycled metal but if you buy anything made of steel, there's a good chance that it contains a high percentage of recycled material. Glass also recycles without a lot of fanfare, though you may occasionally see something labeled as being made of recycled glass. Recycled paper and recycled plastic are fairly new industries, thus they need more promotion and when something is made of recycled paper or plastic, it usually says so.
When buying items that eventually must be disposed, buy items that are recyclable. Types 1 and 2 plastics are more in demand than types 3, 5, and 7. Most paper is recyclable except for waxed paper cartons (milk cartons). Aseptic containers (juice boxes) can be recycled but the process is cumbersome and most communities do not have facilities to do it.
There is one form of recycling that is a natural process and thus every bit as good as reducing. That is composting. If you'd like another R word, call it rotting - controlled rotting. If you are unable to have an "official" compost pile, you may want to leave things to decompose in place. If grass clippings are not large, leave them where they fall. If fall leaves will not damage grass or other plants beneath them, leave them where they are. It's free fertilizer and you're not being lazy, you're being environmentally friendly. Protecting the environment does not always have to be laborious or expensive.
Sometimes it is not cut and dried what process or product is the best. Is it better to buy the conventionally grown produce from the farm two miles away or the organic produce from the farm three states away? Is glass the better choice because it is so recyclable or is plastic the better choice because it is lightweight and takes less energy to ship? Plastic X maybe be recyclable in theory, but is anyone recycling it? There are questions to which there are no satisfactory answers - yet. Don't give up. Don't let the questions frustrate you. Do what you can do now. You might want to start out with just one aspect, like buying locally or reducing packaging. Start small if you must, but do start.
It all starts with thinking so I'll leave you with one last R word - ruminate. Ruminate upon what you are buying. Think first about how you can reduce consumption. Then think about how you can reuse what you have. Then think about how you can have recycled what you can no longer use. It's not about expensive, organically grown, solar-powered, rainforest this-and-that. At the root there are a lot of old-time values and common sense. All living things must use resources, but let's be smart about what we use.