Rethinking the 3Rs of Sustainable Living

Most people can quote the 3Rs: REDUCE, REUSE, RECYCLE, however, since becoming a mantra twenty or so years ago, a bit has been lost in the meaning of the words and people have also lost the fact that the 3Rs are in hierarchal order. I also feel that in my personal work as a green living advocate, the the 3Rs could use some updating…so here we go.

I want this to be a short post, so I’m not really going to go into the WHY behind these “Rs” but I promise to do so at a later date. However, one note is that the Rs are in hierarchachal order meaning from R1 is the MOST beneficial step to take towards living a sustainable life.

The Green and Greener 5Rs of Sustainable Living in a Consumer Society

R1: REDUCE: which means reduce use of raw materials and energy by reducing consumption. This is the step that has the most opportunity for reducing your footprint on the planet. In some ways it is the easiest since it requires no action, however, it does require a mind shift when it comes to shopping. A good way to start on your path of less consumption is to give yourself a consumer time-out when you find something that you like but don’t need. Don’t buy the item right away. Instead, go home and give yourself 24-hours to see if you really can/will use the item. If you go home and forget about the item, you probably didn’t really want/need it. If you can’t stop thinking about it, go ahead and give yourself permission to get it.

R2: RESEARCH: which means that once you’ve decided you really need something you do the research to buy the “greenest” option out there. Is the product made with recycling in mind, did the company who made it pay a fair wage in its manufacturing, is the product non-toxic. Do your homework! This step will also help with step R1: reducing consumption. Sometimes you might find that there is no green option out there and maybe that means you shouldn’t buy the product at all!

R3: REUSE/REPURPOSE/REPAIR/RETURN: traditionally the second R was “reuse” which means to continue to give a product life beyind it’s perhaps short planned life, however, I felt it was a little narrow. So for instance, you are REUSING a plastic water bottle by refilling it with water a second time. However, you could also REPURPOSE it by using it as a bird feeder. Also, once something has broken you can make it useful again by REPAIRING it (easy enough to understand.) The fourth option RETURN is something that was very popular back in the day which is to RETURN the product to where it came so it may be reused (for instance: glass milk bottles.) The benefits of RETURNING over RECYCLING is that the product doesn’t need to undergo an energy intensive remanufacturing process to be useful again.

R4: RECYCLE: Once you have done all of the above items you should then give your product back to its manufacturer (SONY has started doing this) or to a 3rd party recycling so that the raw materials can be turned into something else.

R5: RESPONSIBLE DISPOSAL: Once you’ve done everything above, you will still have some items to dispose of and the key is to do this responsibly. Compact flourescent lightbulbs and rechargable batteries can be recycled at all/most Targets and Home Depots. E-waste and hazardous waste (TVs, computers, regular lightbulbs and batteries, paint thinner, etc.) should be given to your municipal waste center. Los Angeles has permanent hazardous waste drop offs and seasonal ones at local community colleges. Check with your waste pick-up for availability.

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  1. You’re right to put the emphasis on “reduce.” Consumption is not as necessary to our economy as most politicians want us to think! I write about this in my book Cost Benefit Simplicity, which will be available for free download soon at two of my websites: Cleaning-Green.Net and Mommy-Conomics.

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