“Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” it’s a green mantra that we hear over and over again in the media. But where does it come from and what does it really mean for your sustainable and zero-waste lifestyle?
Here’s everything you need to know about the three Rs of recycling.
Where does reduce, reuse, and recycling come from?
These three words were created as part of what’s known as the waste hierarchy. This is basically a list of three actions (the three Rs) that help us decrease the waste we produce and learn eco-friendly ways to deal with the waste we can’t eliminate.
Every year we dump over 2 billion tons of waste, mainly because most of the things we purchase that then get thrown into the garbage within six months, as reported by The World Counts.
If everyone started prioritizing the three Rs of recycling, we could make a huge difference in preventing waste that harms the environment.
Here’s how to make the three Rs your number one zero-waste rule in the house, starting with reducing your waste.
Skip to What You Need
- 1 How ‘Reduce Reuse Recycle’ Came About
- 2 The First R: Reduce
- 3 The Second R: Reuse
- 4 Third R: Recycling
- 5 Combining All Three Rs For A Zero Waste Lifestyle
- 6 Related Questions
- 7 Frequently Asked Questions
- 8 Bottom Line
How ‘Reduce Reuse Recycle’ Came About
The phrase reduce, reuse and recycle can be traced back to the 1970s.
At the time, Senator Gaylord Nelson was in charge of the first national Earth Day, which was held in the U.S. on 22 April 1970.
He is now regarded as the founder of Earth day. This day quickly grew in popularity and raised awareness of the importance of sustainable lifestyles.
Thanks to that day, the federal government went on to create the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). This was around the same time that the Resource Recovery Act was passed by Congress.
This bill was focused on putting federal and community attention on the conversion of waste into energy, resource recovery and recycling.
The ’70s clearly gave birth to the ‘three R’ principles and in that decade, some important recycling and conservation milestones were reached.
For example, in 1972 the first recycling mill was built in Conshohocken, Pennsylvania, as Buch Systems reports.
Now, more than ever, the reduce, reuse and recycle philosophy is important for us to follow.
Here’s a deeper look into the ‘three R’ principles of recycling and how to adapt them to fit into your life.
The First R: Reduce
‘Reduce’ is the first R because when we reduce what we consume and what we waste, this gives us less to recycle and reuse at a later stage.
The most important way to reduce the waste we produce is by becoming smarter with our purchases.
Buying items that don’t contain plastic wrapping or packaging means that there’s less trash going into the bin when we get home.
As EPA reports, packaging makes up almost a quarter of the garbage that ends up in landfills in the U.S.
While sometimes it’s necessary to have plastic on fragile items to protect them against damage, often a lot of plastic packaging is not required.
Switching to items that contain less of it can help you reduce your waste.
You can also reduce your waste in the
- Purchase products that have more than one use, if possible. By extending a product’s lifespan, you reduce your waste. The benefit of thinking in this way is that you only will throw away one product at a later stage, instead of two. For example, a silicone sponge to help you clean the dishes could also be used as a coaster to catch spills.
- Purchase groceries and other products that you use a lot in bulk. From toilet paper to your favorite ketchup brand, buying in bulk for items that you regularly purchase not only saves you money but reduces the amount of plastic that you bring home.
- Buy products that are produced with zero waste in mind, such as a bamboo toothbrush that can be composted when it’s no longer used, thus preventing waste.
- Try to make use of packaging. If you can’t escape the amount of plastic packaging used for some products, the best thing you can do is reuse it in some way. Perhaps you can use plastic wrapping to store fragile glass items when packing them away or as a plant cover to protect delicate plants and shrubs from frost.
- Ban the word ‘disposable’ from your home. Avoid purchasing disposable items like paper plates and cutlery. These might seem to make your cleanup after dinner easier, but they just end up creating a lot of unnecessary waste. Instead of using paper towels in the kitchen to mop up spills, invest in clothes that you can clean and reuse many more times. Paper towels are extremely harmful to the planet. To produce one ton of paper towels, 17 trees need to be cut down and 20,000 gallons of water are required, according to Green Divas.
- Decrease the amount of paper in your home. You can do this in various ways, such as by removing your name from mailing lists, storing emails on your computer instead of printing them, and using a whiteboard to make notes and lists instead of sheets of paper.
The Second R: Reuse
The second principle in the waste hierarchy is important because it deals with items you already have that aren’t being used anymore.
While the tendency is to throw them out in the next garbage load, by thinking a bit more creatively you can give them a new lease on life.
It’s amazing what you can do with the items you think you don’t need anymore.
There are many different items that you can reuse in the home, but here are some common ones and what to do with them.
- Old tires – These can become planters for pretty flowers in the garden or swings for your kids.
- Newspaper – Instead of throwing it away, keep old newspapers that you don’t need anymore for when you need to pack boxes, such as when moving into a new home, or when you need to store valuable glass items in the garage.
- Food leftovers – These can be used in new, creative dishes, or in sandwiches and salads. For food scraps, like eggshells and ground coffee beans, put them in the compost heap where they can help to bring about new growth instead of throwing them away where they go to waste.
- Egg cartons – These can be used as planters for seedlings or as storage for items like; jewelry, paperclips, and so on
- Mason jars – These can be used as storage or turn your unused mason jars into pretty candles. In the U.S., over 11 million tons of glass gets thrown in the garbage every year, as the EPA reports. Treat other glass you don’t want to some upcycling too, like vases and old drinking glasses. These can be turned into useful items, like stationery holders.
- Old clothing – If it’s stained or has holes in it, you can cut up the clothing to be used as cleaning rags. If there’s enough good material that can be saved, use it to make cushion covers or to make stuffed toys for your kids.
You should always think of how you can reuse items because this can save you money by preventing you from having to go out and buy new items at a later stage.
Pro tip: Purchase reusable items that will have a longer lifespan. An example is a reusable grocery bag instead of a plastic one as it’s more sustainable.
What About The Items You Can’t Reuse?
There’s another element to the reuse principle of the waste hierarchy, and it’s a donation.
There are some items around the house that you don’t want to upcycle into something else. These include old books and clothing that’s still in good condition but which you don’t want to wear anymore.
Don’t throw them out – donate them!
You can also donate your old cell phones to nonprofit organizations such as Cell Phones for Soldiers. This organization offers communication services to active-duty military members and veterans on a global scale.
Since it would be a shame to ruin or throw away items that are still in good condition, they’re perfect candidates for donation.
Donating such items to the less fortunate is a wonderful way of helping impoverished communities to survive. These good deeds should form part of our environmental initiatives.
Third R: Recycling
If you haven’t started recycling yet, you can, and should, start now.
Recycling lowers the amount of pollution that’s caused by waste because when items get thrown into landfills they release greenhouse gases and chemicals.
The less we throw things into the garbage, therefore, the fewer chemicals can be produced. It’s never too late to start reducing the impact of these noxious gases on our planet.
In addition, the process of making products from raw materials consumes large amounts of energy. This can be reduced by recycling products, and it helps to prevent the use of our natural resources.
It’s a total myth that recycling is too difficult or time-consuming.
Once you set up a recycling bin (or two) in your home, it’s really quick and easy to recycle on a daily or weekly basis.
Here are some tips to help you get started with a recycling program
- Place a large bin in your home, such as in your kitchen, so you can easily pop items for recycling in there.
NB: Some recycling services will separate plastic, paper, metal and glass on your behalf, so you can just collect them in one bin. Others want you to separate them.
That’s why you should always check with your municipal recycling center to find out if they prefer items to be sorted according to different materials or not. If they have a ‘single-stream’ recycling process, this means that they will collect all your recyclable goods in one container.
If they allow ‘dual-stream’ recycling programs, this means that you have to separate the items yourself. In this case, you’ll need more than one bin or bag in which to throw recyclable goods.
- When you’re about to throw an item that’s dirty into your recycling bin, such as an empty can of tomato puree, always give it a rinse so that it’s clean before going into the bin. This not only prevents bad odors in your house but will make the job of the people recycling your items a bit more pleasant.
What Items Can’t Be Recycled?
While you’re getting into the habit of recycling, bear in mind there are some items that can’t be recycled. These include:
- medical waste, such as syringes;
- paper towels (their fibers are often too
short to be used again);
- shredded paper (because it’s impossible for the people recycling it to know what kind of paper it was);
- takeout containers and pizza boxes with an oily or greasy residue as this poses a contamination risk;
- any plastic containers or wrappers that have the numbers 1 – 7 on them. This is because these items tend to be food containers such as yogurt cups or butter tubs, so there’s a risk of contamination when recycling them. In addition, plastic containing the numbers 1 through to 7 cannot be recycled because they can’t be broken down.
Surprising Items That Can Be Recycled
While you might come across these items in your home and throw them into the trash can, they can actually be recycled – just not in your recycling bins.
You shouldn’t pop these in your glass recycling bin because they often contain mercury and other dangerous gases, which makes them fall into the category of hazardous waste.
However, that doesn’t mean you have to throw them into the garbage. Bring them into IKEA or other companies that collect fluorescent bulbs for recycling purposes, as reported by Conserve Energy Future.
Don’t throw them away – there are many national retailers that accept old and reusable batteries. These include Best Buy and Home Depot.
If you love makeup, make sure you don’t throw out your eyeshadow and foundation containers when the products are finished.
If these can’t be recycled in your bin, don’t fret. Many beauty brands will take back your empty containers so that they can be recycled, and these include big-name brands like Aveda, Lush, and Mac.
Combining All Three Rs For A Zero Waste Lifestyle
Working towards having a zero waste life means reducing, reusing and recycling.
While doing one or two of these principles will obviously help the environment, they are the most successful when you adopt all three simultaneously.
For example, when you get into the habit of recycling waste in your home, you’ll become more aware of the products you buy as this can help you reduce the amount of waste that enters your recycling bin, to begin with and will result in less effort on your part.
You’ll become much wiser about what you consume and limit your waste.
As stated on the EPA website, ‘the most effective way to reduce waste, and the most environmentally preferred strategy, is to not create it in the first place’.
Following the ‘three R’ principles will have the positive effect of making you follow a zero-waste lifestyle from beginning to end.
In addition, once you start reducing, reusing and recycling, you’ll be motivated to do more.
A study that was published in the Journal of Marketing found that when consumers thought more about how their recycled products became new products it inspired them to recycle even more.
What Should You Do If Your Town Doesn’t Offer Curbside Pick-Up Of Your Recyclables?
You should check where the nearest recycling drop-off zone is. Contact your city or county’s environmental protection department to find out.
What Waste Can I Put In A Compost Heap?
You should aim for half green items and half brown to get the correct compost mix. Green items include things like fruit peels and grass mowings.
Brown items include autumn leaves, straw, wood ash, and cardboard. Never put items like plastic, meat scraps, pet feces, and cans in your compost
Frequently Asked Questions
What are the three Rs of waste?
Reduce, Reuse, Recycle - these three words were created as part of what's known as the waste hierarchy. This is basically a list of three actions (the three Rs) that help us decrease the waste we produce and learn eco-friendly ways to deal with the waste we can't eliminate. For more info, check out this detailed article on the three R's.
What can I put in my compost bin?
You should aim for half green items and half brown to get the correct compost mix. Green items include things like fruit peels and grass mowings. Brown items include autumn leaves, straw, wood ash, and cardboard. Never put items like plastic, meat scraps, pet feces, and cans in your compost. For more info on composting, check out this article.
What Items Can't Be Recycled?
While you're getting into the habit of recycling, bear in mind there are some items that can't be recycled. These include: medical waste, shredded paper (because it's impossible for the people recycling it to know what kind of paper it was); takeout containers and pizza boxes with an oily or greasy residue as this poses a contamination risk; any plastic containers or wrappers that have the numbers 1 - 7 on them. For more info on what to recycle, check out the full article.
You’ve heard the mantra ‘reduce, reuse, and recycle’ many times before, but now you hopefully have a better understanding of these three recycling principles and how they can contribute to a healthier environment and zero waste lifestyle.
Remember that starting small is nothing to be ashamed of; even minimal changes to how you approach waste can reduce your impact on the earth’s resources.
The important thing is to start and work your way towards adopting the ‘three Rs’ completely.
By paying more attention to what you consume, how much waste your household produces, and then deciding on recycling or upcycling it, you can make a huge difference in decreasing your waste and saving money.