Have you heard of the 3 Rs of sustainability? They’re reduce, reuse, recycle. Recycling gets all the attention, but it’s more important to reduce waste.
Actually, the 3 Rs have become the 5 Rs: refuse, reduce, reuse recycle, rot. The idea is that you don’t have to reduce what you refuse in the first place. Rot means compost. Whatever you compost stays out of the landfill.
Or alternatively, I have seen refuse, reduce, reuse, repurpose, recycle. Put the two lists of five together, and they make 6 Rs, but no one writes about that many.
Because recycling gets so much attention, I have created a separate category for it. Here are some tips on the other five ways to reduce waste.
That’s a verb. It means to refuse refuse. (I’m always the pun gent—with no apology.)
Think of packaging as trash we buy and take home. And all those single-use products. Americans throw out. Starbucks alone serves up 6 billion disposable coffee cups. In the US, we use about 100 billion plastic bags every year. Worldwide, that number may be as much as one trillion.
That’s only two products. Think of all the other beverage containers, plastic straws, plastic forks and such, single-serving coffee pods, and other disposables. Refusing to accept them in the first place is the single most important way to reduce waste.
How do you refuse? Here are a few ways
- Take reusable shopping bags with you. That includes reusable produce bags.
- Stop using straws. If you must have a straw, you can get reusable ones. Of course, then you have to know where they are and have one with you when you need it.
- Get a stainless steel water bottle and don’t buy water in a plastic bottle.
- Make coffee any other way than the machines that use disposable pods.
- Get coffee, soft drinks, etc. in your own reusable cup anyplace that will let you.
If refuse means not accepting something at all, reduce means using less. Buying less is the second most important way to reduce waste.
Unfortunately, our whole economy depends on wastefulness. It wants us to replace what we own with something new instead of getting it fixed. Or if it still works perfectly, manufacturers want us to think of it as obsolete as soon as they come out with a newer version.
It also wants us to buy on impulse. You see an advertisement for something you’ve never heard of before. Suddenly, you just have to have it, the sooner the better.
It’s simple to reduce your purchases. Be mindful of what you really need and buy only that. Buy the best quality you can afford so it will last longer. Take good care of what you buy so it will last longer.
Simple doesn’t mean easy. To reduce spending, we have to resist advertising, marketing, and attractive displays of merchandise. We have to decide who runs our lives—and decide it’s not the product pushers.
You’re already reusing when you refuse disposables. But there’s more to it.
Reuse packaging. For example, if you get something wrapped in bubble wrap, keep it till the next time you need to send something. Keep the boxes, too.
It might be hard to get some items repaired, but not everything. Even if it’s hard to repair, it doesn’t hurt to look for opportunities. That way you can keep using what you already have.
If you no longer want something you have, let someone else reuse it. Donate it to a thrift store. For that matter, you can buy things from a thrift store and reuse what someone else doesn’t want.
Don’t forget your library. The library is more than books. You can find movies, music, and all kinds of other things. You can even borrow all kinds of gadgets, like e-readers or wi-fi hotspots.
A lot of places define reuse in ways that include repurpose, but there’s a subtle difference. You can reuse something for its original purpose. Repurposing means reusing it for something else. Either way, you reduce waste by keeping stuff from going to the landfill.
For example, when you buy a loaf of bread, it comes in a plastic bag. You can buy bulk bagels and the store clerk might offer you a freezer bag. Refuse that bag and freeze the bagels in the bread bag.
Some years ago, when libraries were dumping their card catalogs, I scooped up a bunch of catalog cards. Along with other 3×5 cards I’ve scavenged, I think I have a lifetime supply for notes and shopping lists.
You get all kinds of things in the mail that are printed on only one side of a piece of paper. It’s also good for taking notes, doodling, etc.
Do you need something to keep pens and pencils in? Instead of buying a pencil holder, clean up a tin can from the grocery store. If you don’t like the looks of that, you can find instructions for how to make a pretty cover for it—likely as not by repurposing something else.
If you’re into crafts, you can repurpose all kinds of things. Crafters cut up plastic shopping bags to make plastic yarn, or plarn. They make lots of stuff with it. Most usefully, they can make bedrolls for homeless people to lay on. They’re better than a blanket for that purpose. They’re lighter, easier to clean, and don’t attract bedbugs.
You can also find instructions online for making furniture from wooden crates and other castoffs. People in third-world countries make bricks by stuffing plastic bags into plastic bottles. All repurposing takes is imagination.
Do you throw peelings, apple cores, eggshells, coffee grounds and other food scraps in the garbage? You can compost them instead. Thinking of them as a resource instead of a disposal problem is the final way to reduce waste in this article.
In principle, you can compost anything that’s organic, including hair, fingernail clippings, shredded paper, etc. In practice, you can’t compost dog poop, bones, or other meat waste without special equipment.
If you live in a house, you can compost. If you do any gardening, you’ll have all kinds of uses for it. On the other hand, you can’t very easily compost if you live in an apartment. But you can check to see if you can participate in community composting.