You've probably heard of the three R’s: Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. But there are two more Rs that are equally important for sustainable living: Refuse and Rot. Together, they make up the 5R’s of zero-waste living.
The 5R’s function as guidelines for a less wasteful, more sustainable life. You don’t have to abide by them perfectly, but they’re worth keeping in mind as you go about your day making choices that effect the health of the earth.
The order of the R’s matters too! They are intentionally structured, starting with the most impactful, to help us make informed decisions to achieve a more sustainable lifestyle, one step at a time.
Here’s a breakdown of each of the 5R’s
It all starts with refusing wasteful single-use items, especially single-use plastics. One of the most powerful things you can do is to say “no” to freebies, disposables, and unsustainable practices. Refusing these wasteful products in public, say at a coffee shop, grocery store, or restaurant has a secondary benefit of influencing others. It teaches by example and could make someone rethink their own habits.
I became motivated to refuse disposables when I learned that the average American creates about 4.5 pounds of trash every day. Multiply that by the US population, and it becomes clear that something needs to be done. I refuse to play a part in that statistic, and you can too.
Here’s another little motivator: Disposable items are often made using chemicals and unsustainably gathered materials. It’s cheaper to do it this way, but it also means these products cause environmental damage in production and leech toxins as they break down.
Avoiding disposables altogether is the best form of refusal. Stay away from food courts packed with disposable utensils and containers. Avoid purchasing paper napkins and towels at the grocery store. Refuse to buy candy wrapped individually in plastic wrappers. Say “NO” to plastic straws. It’s all about getting comfortable with saying ”NO” to single-use items and saying “YES” to reusable ones.
Reducing your consumption of items in general is a great way to help the environment. We live in a society that tells us we need more things in order to be happy, but that’s not actually true.
The items we buy take a lot of energy and resources to make, so the current trend of manufacturing practices, combined with mass consumerism takes a massive toll on the earth. Many products are made using virgin materials instead of recycled materials. In order to get these virgin materials, logging, mining, and quarrying must occur. These are definitely not the most sustainable practices for gathering resources. Then, it takes even more energy to transform the raw materials into the final product, which is often done in factories wherein pollution is rampant.
The second R teaches us to be more mindful of what we bring into our lives. Less can definitely be more. Reducing is about downsizing on the quantity, while upgrading on the quality of our purchases, so we can live better, and not damage our precious home (earth) in the process. Before making a purchase, step away from the item and ask yourself, “do I really need this?”.
Reusing an item as much as possible helps keep it out of the landfill. There’s also the more literal side to this R, which is buying reusable items that will last years, in place of disposables.
As a society, we’re very quick to throw things away when they break or lose value. In order to encourage continuous spending, many things aren’t built to last anymore. Many everyday items are designed to be used once or twice before becoming trash.
It’s time to rethink the disposable culture we live in. You can do this by learning the art of repairing your items. This practice makes things last longer. For example, if your shirt rips, mend it or turn it into a rag instead of throwing it away. Also, invest in durable, reusable items built to last upfront. A few of my favorite reusable items include a stainless steel water bottle, reusable silicone straws, cloth napkins and washable absorbent cleanup cloths. The goal is to only buy items you can use for several years to come.
Recycle any of the plastic, paper, glass or metal items that come your way that you cannot refuse, reduce, or reuse. While recycling is very important, it’s only one part of a bigger system of sustainability.
There’s been a lot of focus on recycling, which can sometimes confuse the issue. For instance, if a major soda company started making its plastic bottles from 50% recycled plastic, it would sound like a good thing. But if that company then sold hundreds of millions of single-use plastic bottles, most of which end up in the landfill or the ocean, it would be a very bad thing, even though the company is technically using recycling. The idea is to reduce the amount you have to recycle in the first place, not necessarily to recycle more in general.
Altogether, as a global society, we have generated over 8.3 billion tons of plastic since its initial invention. But only 9 percent of plastic actually gets recycled, and even that isn’t much of a solution, since plastic can really only be down-cycled into lower-quality materials.
Try to buy less plastic overall and be diligent about recycling the plastic you do use. When you can, consider products made from glass or metal, as these materials can be recycled an infinite number of times and never lose quality.
Rot refers to the concept of composting: Nature’s recycling system. Millions of tons of waste could be diverted from landfills if we all simply composted our kitchen scraps.
When food scraps are dumped into the garbage, they go to the landfill where they emit methane gas as they break down. Methane gets emitted when organic materials in landfills decompose without the presence of oxygen, due to the compression of so much waste material piled together. Methane is a greenhouse gas that is 84 times more potent in the short term than carbon dioxide. In other words, putting food scraps into the trash is not a good idea for the planet.
The solution is simple: Just compost your food scraps instead. If you live in a small space, consider looking into vermicomposting. Many local farmers markets and community gardens also allow you to drop off your food scraps for composting. If you have a bigger space available, look into setting up a compost system with an enclosed bin or tumbler. You can use your compost in your garden beds or potted plants! Compost acts like a soil conditioner, making your plants extra fertile and happy.
The 5Rs (Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rot) help us make decisions and plan ahead, in order to make the most of our resources while enjoying life and hopefully preserving the earth for future generations.