Rethinking the Three Rs

If you’re a baby boomer or older, you may have read this post’s title and thought we meant “Reading, Writing, and ‘Rithmetic — the cute, alliterative (if not terribly accurate) “three Rs” used for generations to denote the core subjects studied in grammar school (that’s “elementary school” to those of us not of that time).

Those of us born into Generation X or later have three very different Rs in mind — “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.” We’ve heard it over and over again since we were small children. And, more than likely,  most of us quickly conjure up the image below when we hear it.


The problem is, this image has it wrong. It’s clever and alliterative and memorable, but it conveys the wrong message and it falls short by a couple of important Rs.

What too many of us have grown up believing (or at least wanting to believe) is that the three components of that eco-friendly trilogy are all equally helpful and beneficial to the environment. And far, far too many of us have put the bulk of our trust in the RECYCLE part of this misleading triumvirate.

The problem is that this has lead to a whole lot of Americans who are wasteful consumers and wishful recyclers.

This is fine,” we think of our Starbucks cups (along with their cardboard heat sleeves, plastic lids, and plastic splash sticks), “I’ll just recycle this after I use it.” And that, my friends, is wishful recycling. The problem is that recycling doesn’t always work the way we hope it does. That single-use coffee cup most often is lined with plastic and therefore can’t be recycled. The plastic splash stick and lid could be, but most often the bin you toss it into at the mall gets contaminated with food and the entire load becomes too manual-labor intensive to get recycled…so finds its way into the landfill instead — and that’s if you were able to find a recycling bin rather than a trash bin, in the first place.

We hate to be the ones to say it, but a whole LOT of us have been going around thinking we were environmentally friendly when our consuming-and-disposal habits have, in fact, been pretty egregious.

From a consumer’s point of view,* a much better representation of ways to have a positive impact on the environment than the ubiquitous three-R diagram is the five-R diagram below, which shows the best-to-worst options in the diminishing size of each band:

waste heirarchy

REFUSE  | The most impactful thing a consumer can do is to avoid/refuse unnecessary single-use items (straws, plastic bags, excess packaging, etc.) and stop buying/using items known to be major contributors to negative environmental impact such as plastic bottles/containers, single-use items of any kind, and anything made from materials that are not reusable, recyclable, compostable or biodegradable. By changing these consumer habits, we not only reduce the amount of waste occasion-by-occasion, but we also send a powerful consumer message to retailers and manufacturers that can, over time, influence their sourcing, packaging, and delivery of goods to be more environmentally sound.

REDUCE | If we can’t always avoid/refuse, the next most beneficial thing we can do is to make a conscious effort to substantially reduce the amount of waste we create as much and as often as possible in the same ways noted above under REFUSE and below under REUSE. And, honestly, simply making the choice to buy less stuff goes in this category, too. Do you need it? Sincerely need it? If not, don’t buy it or bring it home. Reducing means evaluating our day to day habits and deciding what things really add value to our lives and which things we can do without. It may also mean looking for and buying earth-friendlier versions of the things we do need. It may mean cooking or making things at home for ourselves more often, too.

REUSE | Routinely using multi-use items as much as possible is super important for all of us to do. There’s a hashtag that lots of people use — #noexcuseforsingleuse. It embodies the idea that items created and intended for only one use (“disposable” items) are a huge problem for our planet. There are lots of easy things a person can do that fall into the category of reuse — buy and use a thermos instead of take-out coffee cups, use a razor with replaceable blades instead of “disposable” plastic razors, get and use cloth napkins and rags instead of paper napkins and paper towels…and so many more imaginative ways to build reusing into every day life.

RECYCLE | Way down in 4th place on the scale of impact is recycling. It’s still important and beneficial to do, but it has far less reach and makes much less of a dent in stewarding the earth than the three Rs above it. In the wake of China’s Operation National Sword, the efficacy of recycling in the United States has become seriously diminished.

The least preferential thing a consumer can do is send items to a landfill to “rot.” The trouble, of course, is that a lot of the things that end up in landfills do no such thing.

ROT | This could mean two things: Rotting in the form of composting (which is really part of recycling, if you ask us) or rotting in the form of being put into the trash to be hauled to a landfill. While composting is generally revered as a helpful solution for some waste, the least preferential thing a consumer can do is send items to a landfill to “rot.” The trouble, of course, is that a lot of the things that end up in landfills do no such thing. Many items are made of materials that do not actually biodegrade or decompose for hundreds if not thousands of years.

* Waste management organizations and civic entities tasked with managing solid waste generally break down the hierarchy even further to include RECOVERY (recovering materials and energy from waste as much as possible) and TREATMENT (yeah, we know…it’s not an R) between RECYCLE and ROT (“disposal”). Some consumers may put composting in the category of RECOVERY.

[header photo | John Cameron]

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