The Three Rs Are Woefully Inadequate. The Five Rs Are A Bit Better.
You’ve probably heard of the three Rs: reduce, reuse, and recycle. These terms were first popularized in the late-1970s, following the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. The idea was simple: Give the public a motto for reducing waste to curb North Americans’ seemingly unstoppable proclivity for making trash and to aid governments’ abilities to manage it.
Despite our familiarity with the three Rs, and the fact that “zero waste” trends seem to be advancing at lightning speed, waste is still a huge problem around the world, and one that continues to grow exponentially.
In 2013, Bea Johnson gave the world the Five Rs in her book Zero Waste Home: The Ultimate Guide to Simplifying Your Life by Reducing Your Waste. They are: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, and Rot. The Five Rs give us a new framework for dealing with waste in our lives, in part by helping us acknowledge the habits that lead to more waste and more trash.
Let's break them down.
Refusing helps eliminate a lot of waste from the start. It's about saying “no” to free stuff that becomes instant waste. It takes a bit of practice and preparation (read: resources of time and money) to find and actively incorporate reusable alternatives into your daily life.
Here are some things you can refuse on a daily basis: single-use plastics like disposable coffee cups, utensils, and straws (provided you don’t need them to drink). Even bioplastic straws, which are theoretically compostable, often end up in the trash because municipal composting facilities can’t identify them as bioplastic.
We're all conditioned to say yes and accept swag bags, free coupons, magazines, flyers, and anything else because it's free. Accept the things you need, and refuse the rest. Let's be honest, how many swag bags aren't filled with useless goodies or just marketing material? You can even refuse junk mail by using a free service like Catalog Choice.
To help you get in the habit of refusing, look at what you're always accepting. If it's coffee cups, find a reusable one. If it's flyers, take a photo with your phone and save it for later. There are sustainable ways to refuse that don't mean you have to go without.
Simply reduce what you're purchasing by being mindful about what you need and want. This goes hand-in-hand with refusing.
Be realistic about what you actually need. Before making purchases, ask yourself if you really need this item. If you do, look at the quality. While price is a huge factor, try to find the best quality in your budget. Well-made products will last longer, reducing the times you'll need to repurchase. Another tip is to take care of your possessions by following cleaning instructions and labels so everything lasts a long time.
Personal care products that can be refilled or bought “pumpless” also help reduce packaging waste and often come with perks like free shipping and less-expensive product-per-ounce (we’re talking about ourselves here!).
Reusing and repairing go hand in hand. When you're deciding whether to toss something out and buy a new one, ask yourself if you can find a way to reuse or repair it. This applies to clothing, furniture, and technology. If your phone or laptop is broken, instead of immediately purchasing a new one, seek repair options first.
Reusing also means selling or donating your used items so they go to loving homes instead of the landfill. Have a yard sale, hop on Craigslist, or ask your friends and family if they have a need for things you don't.
You can also reuse by buying second hand. Shop at thrift and antique stores and go to yard sales. You'll save a lot of money and reuse something someone else didn't want. Don't forget a library card, which is a really great way to reuse books, music, and movies.
One of the most ubiquitous ways to reduce waste is to recycle, but recycling is far from perfect.
The world went into a tailspin when China stopped accepting recycled waste in 2018, and recycling is not available or in active use everywhere on planet earth. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t recycle—definitely recycle!—but we need to look at strategies like avoiding plastic packaging (driving down demand for plastics) and making use of materials that can be composted (driving up demand for alternative packaging).
When you recycle, ensure that you're sorting and cleaning your recycling according to local regulations. The EPA has a good FAQ section on recycling here.
“Rot”—fun to say, fun to do. You might be thinking “there is no way I have time to compost” and that might be true for you. If it is, that’s fair and that’s life.
There are lots of different ways to compost now that make it a bit easier than it used to be. Vermiculture composting is a great option if you have limited (or zero) outdoor space (we had our own worm compost in our Brooklyn apartment for 8 years!). There are also composting pick-up services, and drop-off spots in many cities and towns. Collect food scraps in your fridge or freezer so they don’t smell, and then make your drop weekly.
WHO’S RESPONSIBLE FOR TRASH?
There is a serious problem with putting our waste problem onto individuals, and it’s worth calling that out here. People without ample time and financial resources are not likely candidates for alternative methods of reducing waste, many of which require both. How likely are you to set up a vermiculture bin in your home kitchen, if you’re working two jobs and struggling to make ends meet? (Not very.) Not to mention the mental drain of living in poverty—it leaves little space for problem solving waste solutions. This is to say nothing of corporate lobbies that are influencing what types of materials are used (and then trashed), as well as rampant “buy this!” marketing that makes people feel inadequate if they don’t have new stuff.
Cities that make composting a requirement and highly accessible are on the right track and are doing a good job of averting trash from landfills. It works because they’ve taken the onus off the individual and made the problem a collective one, with a collective solution.
The Five Rs can’t and won’t be a silver bullet to solving our waste problem (and subsequently bringing down our levels of carbon emissions), but they do offer a more fleshed out framework for thinking about the objects we bring into our lives and how we dispose of them. Awareness, perhaps, is a good first step.