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The "5" R's: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Repair, Recycle, Rot, Resist

A recycling logo made of recycled materials

We grew up learning about the “three R’s” — reduce, reuse, recycle. But have you ever considered the significance of the order of the three?

Of the plastic waste produced between 1950 and 2015, only 9 percent was recycled, according to a 2017 study published in Science Advances. The EPA estimates that every American produces more than two tons of waste yearly, with more than 200 pounds of that being food.

tl;dr: we recycle only about one-third of our waste!

Waste management is an increasingly troubling problem for countries to tackle. Many plastics take anywhere from a decade to a few hundred years to degrade in sunlight — that is, if they even get sunlight. Much of this trash is hidden under piles in landfills.

This is why the order of the familiar turn of phrase is significant: reducing and reusing ought to come before we even think about the recycling bin.

Consider it a waste hierarchy of sorts, with recycling as a last resort. Our efforts would be best spent by prioritizing reducing our waste, reusing what we already have, and only recycling if we absolutely need to discard something.

The problem of plastic and other recycling waste is massive, but if we can make individual lifestyle changes (while pushing for larger, systemic change!), we can make a real, meaningful difference for a massive problem.

And don’t be fooled by the myth that recycling doesn’t matter: when we recycle, we’re still reducing the extraction creation of virgin materials, conserving energy, reducing air and water pollution, reducing greenhouse gases, and more.

There are also a few other important R’s to the mix. 

Here are some ways you can meaningfully engage with the growing waste problem by refusing, reducing, reusing, recycling, repairing, and a couple extras, too.

What Are the 5 R’s?

The 5 Rs are Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Repair, and Recycle. Though the list can often continue with even more Rs, like Resist, Rot, Repaint, Repurpose, Reclaim, and Refurbish.

An infographic titled 'THE 5 R’S OF RECYCLING' with a geometric layered pyramid graphic in shades of blue. From top to bottom, the pyramid segments are labeled with: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Repair, and Recycle. Beneath the pyramid, a subtitle reads 'PLUS: ROT, RESIST, AND MORE...' with the Good Good Good logo on the bottom right.
Photo credit: Good Good Good

We’ve created a breakdown of these, along with simple tips to help you get started:

Refuse

A plastic bag that says 'No thanks'
Illustration by Carra Sykes for the Goodnewspaper

A great way to take waste out of the equation: refusing items altogether! Refusing can mean either declining to participatein a waste-generating activity, or refusing to accumulate what we don’t need. Refusing also looks like declining to buy or use products that harm you or the environment.

Use the power of your dollar — in this case, withholding that power — to tell companies what you want. It may feel tempting to tell yourself, “Well, the item’s already created, what harm will it do.” But remember: supply is driven by demand, and you can decrease demand for something by declining to purchase it.

Refusing doesn’t have to be complicated. Sometimes it’s a simple “no, thanks.” 

We’ve been conditioned to consume things because they’re cheap (or even free!), but this isn’t a good reason to purchase or consume something. Especially if you have a similar item that works perfectly for your needs already — refuse the new item!

Refusing also doesn’t have to happen all at once: it’s a constant process of examining your lifestyle, trash can, and recycle bin and looking for ways you can refuse things in the future. (Same goes for reducing, the next R in the process!)

Tips To Help You Refuse:

Tip #1: Refuse to accumulate what you don’t need, such as free water bottles, pens, or other swag. If you’ll use it, then take it, but if it’ll end up in trash, it’s better not to. It can feel weird to refuse gifts — but if they aren’t necessary, just say no (and communicate your desire for consumable gifts, instead!).

Tip #2: When you order takeout from a restaurant, ask the server to skip the plastic bag, cutlery, and napkins. Refusing is about preventing ownership altogether so that items never enter the reduce/reuse/recycle lifecycle at all. 

Reduce

A jar of rice and a jar of soap
Illustration by Carra Sykes for the Goodnewspaper

Reducing is about limiting our accumulation and lessening our impact. It can be overwhelming to quit anything cold turkey, so reducing our consumptive habits is a great place to start. Because the reality is, there are things we need to go about our day-to-day lives — we just may not need as much as we think we do!

When you do have to accumulate something, make a strategic choice to lessen your environmental impact. There are so many great resources online for making more sustainable lifestyle choices, and incredible online shops that offer low- or zero-waste products.

When you can’t refuse something altogether, you have the buying power to choose to buy less — and buy better.

5 Things To Reduce This Month:

Do you think you can go a whole month without each of these?

You’ll probably find that it’s easier than you expect if you’re paying attention to opportunities to reduce.

  1. Single-use silverware
  2. Single-use bags (plastic or otherwise)
  3. Disposable straws
  4. Plastic cups
  5. Single-use water bottles

Tips To Help You Reduce:

Tip #1: “Zero waste” and refill stores, where you can buy low-or-no waste, eco-friendly products, are rising in popularity. See if there’s one in your area, or shop online at some of our favorites such as Package Free Shop and Zero Waste Store.

Tip #2: Buy products like food, laundry, and cleaning products in bulk, economy sizes, or concentrate to reduce the amount of packaging that comes with your purchase.

Reuse

Reusing means using something you’ve purchased more than once rather than tossing it after a single use. Simple, right? There are clever ways to reuse that you might’ve never heard of.

Once you have purchased or own something, reusing is simply about extending the life of that item — whether it’s reusing a glass jam jar for storage (who wants to compare glass container collections?), a cozy winter sweater for multiple seasons, or a gift bag you received to use for your own gifting!

A synonym for reusing is upcycling! Upcycling reuses discarded items or materials and turns them into something with a higher value than what it originally had. In short, before you toss an item in the bin, ask yourself how you might creatively upcycle or reuse it.

The concepts of reusing and upcycling are catching on at a larger scale, too, ​​from the fashion industry and building construction, to wind turbines, food, and even beer! Cheers to that.

Examples of Things You Could Definitely Reuse Instead of Throwing Away:

  • Coffee grounds can be used to create a body scrub. It’s exfoliating and smells amazing.
  • Your old toothbrush can be used to scrub grout around tile and underneath sink fixtures.
  • At the end of the growing season, let some of your veggies and flowers go to seed, collect the seeds, and use them next season for free.
  • Blankets and towels can be donated to animal shelters, where they will be reused to keep animals warm.
  • Used pieces of paper and junk mail can be used as scrap paper.
  • Reuse your food scraps by composting them.
  • Yard debris like grass cuttings, leaves, and wood chips naturally fertilize and add nutrients to your soil.
  • Egg cartons can be used as a palette for paint or a place to store seedlings.
  • When you get a gift, save the bag and use it the next time you need to give a gift.
  • Use your Goodnewspaper as wrapping paper — the recipient gets a gift wrapped in good news.
  • Sell your used clothes online (or IRL!) to ensure they get to live another life in a new home. 

Tip To Help You Reuse:

You often don’t need to buy anything new — you probably have what you need at home. But if you need to buy something, make sure you’ll use it more than once. Substitute a plastic shopping bag for a reusable one (we like Baggu), plastic food wrap for beeswax wrap, and plastic Ziploc bags for silicone food bags (such as Stasher). Carry a water bottle, cutlery, and shopping bags with you so you’re never without an eco-friendly option.

Repair

A natural side effect of owning things and using those things: they have the potential to break! 

While consumerism tends to force us into a throw-away mindset when something rips, gets worn, stops working, or otherwise breaks — there’s a much better, less wasteful alternative. Repair it! 

It can take a little more time, money, and energy (arguably still less, though when you consider the cost to replace and dispose of the item) to fix something before throwing it out, but you’ll get a whole lot more out of the process, and you might learn a useful skill in the process.  

Repairing has caught on in the fashion industry in particular, as consumers swap the lure of fast fashion for a slower shopping experience — one that prioritizes investing in high-quality pieces that can be worn, repaired, and reworn.

Brands are taking repairs seriously in-house, too: Patagonia offers repair services for their garments — communicating to customers that it stands by the quality and longevity of their items.

It’s important to note: Many industries, like cars and electronics, offer repairs exclusively through the manufacturers themselves or authorized agents, which can be costly. When the cost of repairing an item is barely less than replacing the item altogether, many consumers choose to just buy a new gadget instead.

Thankfully, the “right to repair” movement is gaining ground globally, too, advocating for consumers’ right to fix the items they own.

‍‍

Tips To Help You Repair:

Tip #1: Treat it like a hobby! Instead of replacing an item, learn to repair it. You’ll feel a sense of accomplishment when you do and will be more likely to care for the item in the future.

Tip #2: Before you toss your shirt with snag, rip, or pull, consider taking the time to repair it instead. Learning how to sew, hem, or patch will serve as a useful skill and could even turn into a hobby. Plus, how rewarding would it be to wear an item that your time and energy went into repairing? If you really don’t want to fix it, see if there’s a way to repurpose the fabric before you ditch it. Old clothing can often be reused as rags.

The Only Things You Need In Your Home To Create a Toolkit:

A well-equipped toolkit is essential for completing everyday jobs around the home — from putting together furniture to home improvements.

Here’s what you need to create a toolkit that should maintain and repair most items in your home.

  1. Hammer
  2. Screwdriver
  3. Pliers
  4. Wrench
  5. Tape Measure Level
  6. Utility Knife
  7. Sewing Kit
  8. Electric Drill
  9. Hacksaw
  10. YouTube

Recycle

A green recycling bin with the words Please Recycle
Illustration by Carra Sykes for the Goodnewspaper

After all that: we’ve reached the fifth R… recycle. Recycling is the act of converting waste into usable materials. Sometimes it’s returning a material back into what it once was, or maybe it’s turning it into something brand new. The most common items found in recycling bins are paper, plastic, glass, and aluminum.

Honest moment: recycling statistics in the U.S. aren’t super encouraging (it’s why we encourage doing all of the above first!), and there are a lot of contributing factors, like confusion around local recycling rules, changes in accepted materials, contaminated recycling loads, “wishcycling,” and more.

This shouldn’t stop us from recycling, though. Look into what your local recycling guidelines are, and stick to them! If your local municipality has a recycling service, it’s because they’re invested in it, and we can be good community participants

The Good News on Recycling:

Recycling is also important because it really can have a profound effect on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. According to the EPA, municipal solid waste recycling in 2006 eliminated almost 183 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent in greenhouse gas emissions. 

The company RecycleBank has partnered with over 300 communities since its inception in 2004. Gamifying the process, RecycleBank gives people points for recycling, which they can then use toward discounts at businesses such as Kashi, Footlocker, and Dunkin’ Donuts.

After realizing their city didn’t offer glass recycling, two college students in New Orleans decided they wanted to fill that gap. They started a company that exclusively recycles glass and turns it into sand for coastal restoration projects — a much-needed product in the hurricane-prone region.

And others are working to clear up the confusion around recycling. The nonprofit The Recycling Partnership launched a new program called Recycle Check, which will put a QR code on consumer products with hyper-local instructions on how to recycle that item. 

Rot

Extra credit time! We’ve got a couple bonus R’s for you to consider as you work to reduce waste. The first is a pretty big one though, and even with a little bit of effort, can make a really big difference for reducing waste and lowering greenhouse gas emissions.

It’s rot, or composting, and it’s all about reducing the amount of organic waste that ends up in your trash bin. Think paper bags, tissues, and food scraps   ​​the stuff that comes from Earth’s trees and plants. 

Rotting is a great way to lower the amount of methane produced in landfills. When we send organic waste to the landfills, as it decomposes it produces methane — a greenhouse gas that’s 28 times more effective at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide.

There are a few different ways to start incorporating composting into your routine:

  • City composting: While not available for everyone, the easiest way to reduce waste is to put your organic waste in the compost bin (sometimes called the “green bin”) provided by your local municipality.
  • Local composting service: This may take a little searching, but search for “composting service near me” and you may find a local business that offers composting pickup for a small fee. Bonus: You may also be able to request some of the completed compost to use in your plants or garden!
  • Compost at home: This one takes the most time and energy, but there are lots of different methods — some more, some less intensive — to start composting your organic waste at home, whether you have a little or a lot of space!
  • Countertop composting: There are new devices on the market that make composting at home quick and simple. The Lomi and Foodcyler are a couple new options. Fair warning: the initial investment on this one could be cost-prohibitive!

Tip To Help You Rot:

Especially if you don’t have access to city composting, store your food scraps in a container in the fridge or freezer until you’re ready to add them to your compost! It helps keeps the smells at bay. 

Resist

A person speaking into an Earth-themed bullhorn
Illustration by Carra Sykes for the Goodnewspaper

This “R” is all about using your voice to make a difference. Resistance is an act of speaking to the powers that be of the world to fight for change on a large-scale, systemic level. 

And the reality is that our waste systems need big change — from cleaning up production of the materials that end up in our landfills, to holding corporations that generate that waste accountable for disposing of it.   

In the U.S., a majority of registered voters now say climate change is an emergency — and waste is a big contributor to the climate crisis.

We know that personal responsibility and consumer decisions are important parts of addressing climate change. We certainly shouldn’t stop bringing reusable bags to the grocery store, driving less, recycling, and changing to energy-efficient lightbulbs.

But the problem is much larger than that.

To make the greatest impact, we have to hold larger institutions and corporations accountable because they have the largest carbon footprints.

Just like we have the ability to do our part in our homes, we have the ability to make an impact on the largest scale by voting at the polls and with our dollar to support the politicians and businesses that are making strides to protect our planet.

The smaller, personal lifestyle changes — although important — don’t always equate to social change. If every American chose to live a zero waste lifestyle, it would be a massive feat, but some estimates show that if every American did everything they could to reduce their carbon footprint, it would only reduce U.S. gross emissions by about 22 percent.

There would be far more work left to do to get corporations and governments to behave just as fervently to care for the environment.

Instead of blaming individuals for their environmental responsibility, our energy would be more effectively spent engaging politicians and corporations — the people who wield substantial power (and also create substantial waste and do substantial harm).

The answer is activism. Call your representatives, petition companies, and participate in rallies and demonstrations. It works. It matters. 

Tips To Help You Resist:

Tip #1: If you’ve got a favorite clothing brand, look them up on goodonyou.eco’s sustainable brand guide. They give brands a rating from “We Avoid” to “It’s a start” to “Great” — once you learn where your brand of choice stacks up, you can contact them to share your concerns and demand change.

Tip #2: When it comes to voting, choose a candidate that prioritizes climate action. The League of Conservation Voters has a resource that shows you how your current, incumbent elected officials have supported (or not supported) climate policies. And for new candidates, especially at the local level, pay attention to how they talk about and make climate action a part of their platform.

We get it: considering each of these R’s takes a lot more energy and effort than simply tossing something in the trash or recycling bin would. But we can also say, from personal experience, that these steps will start to feel just as simple and straightforward the more you implement them. 

It’s borderline addicting to see how little waste you can produce! 

Again, we hope that by making these individual lifestyle changes, it inspires you to take your action to a more macro level: resisting and fighting for systemic change that leads to a more sustainable, circular waste stream. 

It’s already happening — and we all have the opportunity to help that progress continue.

A version of this article first ran in The Sustainability Edition of the Goodnewspaper in March 2020. It has been adapted and updated.

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Article Details

December 5, 2023 1:32 PM
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