If you’ve learned anything about recycling and sustainability, you’ll certainly be familiar with the concept of the 3 Rs: Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. In essence, this is the primary sustainability strategy that is taught from early childhood into adulthood. And on a consumer behavior level, this can be effective in reducing our individual pollution footprint.
So let’s take a moment to go over each of the Rs individually, how they help the consumption lifecycle, and what we can do individually to support and improve it.
What’s the best way to have less waste? Why, producing no waste, of course! Conceptually, this makes a lot of sense, but in execution, it’s not quite as simple as it sounds.
For one, we live in a consumer-driven economy, and consumption inevitably begets waste. Of course we may all benefit from decluttering our lives and daily processes. If we can more efficiently use our resources, we may not need quite as many of them, thereby reducing the amount of waste we do produce.
Thanks to the increased attention to sustainability in recent years, we’re seeing many more companies and businesses favor things like more sustainable packaging, and even no-packaging options, giving consumers more opportunities to contribute to a reduction of waste across the board.
A common suggestion involves more heavily leveraging the third R, reuse. You likely have a plethora of reusable canvas bags hidden somewhere in your closets. They were distributed en masse during the single-use plastic bag ban episode and are still given out at events, sold in stores, etc. These bags were intended to reduce our reliance on single-use plastic bags. The intention is clear: if you continue to bring a reusable bag to the store with you, you won’t need to accumulate more and more thin plastic bags that you’re more likely to toss. However, the thing to keep in mind with these reusable bags is the energy and resources required to produce them (this applies to all reusable items). SciShow made a fantastic video explaining this concept if you want to check it out here.
In the long term, reducing our usage of wasteful/one-time-use products can go a long way.
Ever repurposed some old cardboard boxes to help you with storage, crafts, or something else? Congratulations, you’re contributing to the 3Rs but reusing something you would otherwise throw away!
Reusing involves leveraging items in several lifecycles. It could be using a bag several times, or repurposing an item for a completely different use. Reuse is one of the most common ways to reduce waste because it’s easy to integrate into our daily lives.
People can get pretty creative with the ways they choose to repurpose their waste! Or you can just reuse the same items for the same usages multiple times.
Here are just a few examples:
Use old plastic bags for multiple shopping trips
Reuse plastic jars (like peanut butter jars) to store snacks or other dry goods
Wash and refill plastic bottles for drinking water
Recycling might be one of the most difficult of the three Rs to follow, and that’s mostly because as an individual we can only do so much. The real recycling happens at an industrial level and as of today that system is extremely opaque to the public, and not very effective (at least for plastics).
Short of completely revamping our recycling infrastructure, which is definitely something we should consider doing, the best thing we can do as individuals is to support the existing processes by properly sorting our waste and recycling only the materials that can be recycled (i.e. no wish-cycling).
Starting in the home, properly sort your food waste and landfill trash from your recyclable goods (like cardboard, paper, and plastic resins type 1 & 2).
For other types of waste that you want to recycle (or even to check if it can be recycled), you can use this website to search for recycling services for a given waste product in your area. You can also check your local government website to see what kind of waste programs they offer as well.
Tips for following the 3 Rs
Eat in - this isn’t always feasible for everyone, but the less food you order out/bring home, the less disposable to-go boxes you’ll end up using and throwing away
Bring your own tupperware - along the same vein as the first tip, here’s another way to reduce those to-go box towers.
Opt for more sustainable packaging - whether you’re ordering something online or picking up something in the store, opt for the items without plastic packaging (yes even the compostable/biodegradable ones). Cardboard by and large has a higher recycling rate (roughly 92% compared to plastic’s 5%!), so if you’re purchasing goods packaged in cardboard, the infrastructure to recycle that waste is much more effective.
Reuse your plastic - like we mentioned earlier, part of reducing waste involves reusing resources! Thin film plastic bags don’t have to be single-use; if you can find other ways to use them (reusing them to carry or store other things) you’re already making progress!
Sell/donate unwanted goods. Buy second-hand - instead of immediately tossing out things you no longer need, consider whether or not they can be useful to someone else. If so, try reselling or donating your items so that they can find new homes and provide value to someone else. Likewise if you’re looking for something of your own, check out used goods stores (like Goodwill, Salvation Army, your local thrift shop, etc.) to see if you can find what you’re looking for there.
And there you have it, the 3Rs. Simple, right?
If there’s anything we’d like you to take away from this post, it’s that sustainability is a lifelong commitment and an ongoing process. We need to continue to be intentional about what we choose to consume and how we choose to dispose of it.
Best of luck on your sustainability journey, and let us know if you pick up any other useful tips along the way!