It's taken decades to get Americans into the rhythm of recycling. Environmental groups guilted and pleaded. Earnest youngsters badgered their parents into taking care of Mother Earth.

The result? Thousands of communities made separating paper, plastic and aluminum a simple routine.

But will the global economic meltdown harm the good habits people are finally beginning to embrace? Prices for recycled paper, plastic and metal have tanked in recent months. There's concern some cities may just haul everything to a landfill if it's cheaper than recycling.

So is there a way to make recycling unnecessary? Enter the concept of "precycling."

No, it's not a setting on your washing machine for pesky ground-in grass stains. It's a push for consumers to think before they buy — so there's no waste that has to go anywhere. Think rechargeable instead of disposable batteries. Cloth napkins instead of paper.

"Environmental education is always being updated, and the message has to change over time," says Carey Hamilton, executive director of the Indiana Recycling Coalition.

The precycling mindset can be used at home, at the office and on every aisle of the grocery store.

Among the Indiana coalition's tips:

• Push your shopping cart past the individual bottled waters and juice boxes. Instead buy large containers and sturdy, refillable bottles.

• Buy loose fruits and vegetables, not prepackaged containers with unnecessary Styrofoam and plastic.

• On the laundry aisle, buy cleaning products in bulk or concentrate.

• As you compare sizes, prices and brands, go for the product with the least packaging and best potential to reuse, refill or recycle.

• In the kitchen, use washable plates, cups and silverware, not paper or plastic.

• The Indiana Recycling Coalition has more tips for home, garden and office.

Hamilton works with businesses to help them with recycling and other "green" plans.  She says the economic downturn shouldn't hamper environmental gains, adding that, over the long term, a green decision is usually the best business decision as well.

"People are starting to see the correlation between environmental decisions and the economic bottom line," she says.

For some hard-working Americans, the whole concept of "recycling" and "precycling" is amusing.

Lynne Finnerty, who grew up on a Mississippi farm raising cattle, cotton and catfish, says farmers are the original environmentalists.

"'Reduce, reuse, recycle' wasn't  a slogan to country folks. It was a way of life," Finnerty says. Now the editor of Farm Bureau News at the American Farm Bureau Federation, she explains how farmers are the ultimate recyclers in an essay titled "Recycle This."

Farmers know how smart it is to buy in bulk. That's how co-ops got started, Finnerty says. Clothing also gets a second life: Worn T-shirts become rags, and old nylons tie up tomato plants.

The latest numbers from the Environmental Protection Agency show conspicuously consuming U.S. residents recycle about one third of their trash. Of 254 million tons created in 2007, 85 million tons found a new life somewhere other than a landfill. Thirty-three percent of paper was recycled, 54 percent of aluminum cans, 48 percent of glass and 28 percent of glass and plastic.

And if you're grumbling about the 30 seconds it takes to put milk jugs into one bin and newspapers into another, take a lesson from those who scrimped and saved during World War II. In the 1940s, British families were urged to separate their waste like this: 

"Tin and metal for aircraft, tanks and weapons,

Boiled bones to make glue for aircraft and glycerin for explosives,

Kitchen waste to feed pigs, goats and chickens."

If recycling could help win a war, just think what precycling could do.

MNN homepage photo: belknap/iStockphoto