Reduce, Reuse & Recycle: What does it Mean, How to put it in Motion

Irene Aguirre 2021-03-30 9 min
How the Reduce, Reuse, Recycle came to be the international system for waste management.

The three R system is known in the scientific society as The Waste Hierarchy. Better known as Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. Which is basically a tool used in the evaluation of processes that protect the environment. Let's dive into what does Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle means and how to put it in motion.

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So, the Reduce, Reuse, Recycle hierarchy establishes preferred program priorities based on sustainability. To be sustainable, our waste management needs to have an integral approach.

It is essentially a tool used in the evaluation of processes that protects the environment along with resource and energy consumption from most favorable to least favorable actions. This is, from the best thing we can do to the least helpful action.

The order of preference for action to reduce and manage waste is presented diagrammatically in the form of a pyramid. And it captures the progression of a material or product through successive stages of waste management and represents the latter part of the life cycle for each product.

Waste Hierarchy Pyramid
From epa.gov

Simply said, it follows what we do with each product until they become waste. Let's check out an example: let's say we are going to follow the organic materials waste management hierarchy:

  • Source Reduction AKA waste prevention. With this, we are attacking the problem before it becomes a problem. It can take many forms, from reducing the amount of food you buy at home and making retailers donate excess food to food-banks and people in need. So waste reduction is the best and most important thing we should do to manage the organic waste problem. This is because source reduction can save natural resources, conserve energy, reduce pollution, reduce the toxicity of our waste and save tons of money for you and people in the business alike!
  • Reuse. Basically reusing the thing you otherwise would toss. This includes cooking with food scraps donating excess materials and giving them a new cycle of life.
  • Recycling and Composting. So, recycling is just a series of activities that transforms a used and already "lived" material into a new up-cycled product. Recycling also includes composting since it basically transforming your food waste into fertilizer for your garden. You can check out Complete Guide on Composting at Home and learn how simple it is! Recycling organic materials can help prevent the emissions of many greenhouse gasses, and water pollutants, it will be supplying valuable raw materials to the industry, it can help create jobs and stimulate the development of greener technologies and alternatives. Recycling comes second in the waste management hierarchy. This means that if we fail to Reduce the source of waste and Reuse we will need to go on and recycle.

According to the EPA ( Environmental Protection Agency), there are two more actions lower on the hierarchy for organic waste management which is: Energy Recovery and Treatment Disposal. But let's not get into them since I am more interested in showing the importance of the Reduce, Reuse, Recycle system.

The purpose of the waste hierarchy is to extract the maximum practical benefits from products and to generate the minimum amount of waste. Proper application of the waste hierarchy can have several benefits. It can help prevent emissions of greenhouse gases, reduces pollutants, saves energy, conserves resources, creates jobs, and stimulates the development of green technologies. As well as reduce pollution, reduce the toxicity of our waste and save tons of money.

It sounds simple because it is essentially simple. We can apply the three R´s system in our day-to-day life to chip into the fight on climate change. But first, let's understand to extend the system.

Let's break down every R :

Reduce

Reducing is essential to the waste hierarchy, reducing what is consumed as well as reducing what is produced. The logic behind it is based on that if there is less waste, then there is less to recycle and reuse. It is critical to pay attention to this when thinking about our waste reduction.

To reduce our waste, we need to begin with an examination of what are we using, and what it is used for. As I always say, we have the power to make a change and it all starts within. So let's see a few simple questions you can ask yourself to be more aware of what we use and how to reduce it.

Question 1: Do I really need it?

This question allows us to think about whether the item we are about to use/purchase is something essential we need to do, have, or do.

Question 2: Is there something else that can be used for this purpose?

Multi-use items are a great way to begin reduction.

Question 3: Is this item something that I need to do or want to do in my life?

There is a lot of things we have and don't use. Buying stuff encourages production, wastes resources, and produces a larger footprint than you can imagine. So think twice before consuming, it's as easy as asking yourself these questions.

Reuse

Reusing is basically increasing the useful life of an item or material. Learning to repurpose items and materials is an essential step in the waste management hierarchy. Keeping a box of things you can repurpose (not hoarding though) is a good way to start to reuse. Using second-hand clothing and cooking with scraps fall right in this category. You can take a look at our posts on Second-hand clothing and Food scraps Recipes.

Recycle

The third R is in that position for a reason. It is the best and most effective way to reduce waste is by not creating them. If we fail to prevent the waste from being produced and we also fail on reusing or re-purposing the items we already have, we need to put in motion the next step of the waste management hierarchy. So when we recycle something that we are doing is transforming it into a raw material that can be shaped into a new item. Although, there are a few materials on earth that cannot be recycled. That is why we need to try not to get here. Let's look at it as our last resource.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and its impact on the environment:

The primary objective of the three R system is to minimize the use of new resources and energy, making more efficient use of resources. It promotes resource efficiency by using the already available resources that are reused, reprocessed, or entirely reduced.

People approaching different containers for waste
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Benefits for the Environment

Keeping up with the three R system has a lot of benefits for the environment and is a key player in the fight for climate change. Here are a few of the things the reduce reuse recycle waste hierarchy helps with:

  • It prevents pollution brought by the production of new materials.
  • Saves energy
  • Reduces greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global climate change
  • Helps sustain the environment for future generations
  • Saves money
  • Reduces the amount of waste that will need to be recycled or sent to landfills and incinerators
  • Allows products to be used to their fullest extent.

How to put in motion the Reduce, Reuse, Recycle hierarchy:

I bet you've heard of Zero Waste, which is the conservation of all resources using responsible production, consumption, reuse, and recovery of products, packaging, and materials without burning and with no discharges to land, water, or air that threaten the environment or human health. It basically aims to nothing in a landfill. Needless to say, the key is the three Rs system. So, check out our post on An Easy Guide to Incorporate Zero-Waste Beauty Routine

But before committing to a Zero-Waste journey, let's start by looking into what can we do in our homes, offices, and at school to reduce waste by putting in motion the three R system:

A boy playing with a bigger girl on a wodden board
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Reduce. Reuse and Recycle at Home

The first place to get started is at home! Let's create new habits, shall we?

  • Avoid disposable goods, paper cups, and plastics. These objects will end up in a landfill, for sure you can try to recycle them but remember not all plastics can be recycled.
  • Buy products made from recycled materials. This way you won't be using new resources. Go to a second-hand shop or to an antiquity store to get some cool stuff!
  • No more plastic bags for grocery shopping. Use cloth bags when buying groceries or reuse grocery bags.
  • Also, while you are doing the groceries, go ahead and buy in bulk. This is a great way to reduce waste from plastic packaging.
  • Instead of using plastic wraps, use resalable containers. Take a trip to the container store and stock up with reusable containers in a variety of sizes. This way you will never have to buy a plastic wrapper again. You'll reduce waste and reduce your shopping list.

Reduce. Reuse and Recycle at school:

We can all do our part, students and teachers can make all the difference!

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  • Before going shopping, check out what you already have at home from last year. This way you will save money and reduce waste.
  • If you need anything for the new school year, buy school supplies made of recycled products, or even better, buy second-hand books, uniforms, and backpacks.
  • Save packaging, shipping boxes, and mail paper from home for your school projects! be creative and try to use anything you have at home before buying new materials.
  • For lunch, instead of buying plastic package snacks, go all-natural and make a fun recipe at home with no packaging need it. This can be a fun Sunday project!
  • Try to get your friends on board! If you are a teacher, make posters that remind students what can be composted or recycled.

Reduce. Reuse and Recycle at the office:

  • Stop printing hard copies of your documents. Just go digital!
  • If you absolutely need to print some paper, make sure your printer is environmentally friendly. Change its settings to make double-sided pages.
  • Paper clips are a reusable alternative over staples.
  • Reuse the paper you have around for note-taking
  • Purchase recycle furniture for your office.

These are only a few things you can start with and build your way up.

It's important to remember that union makes force so try and have an impact in your community. Get organized and work as a whole towards a community that respects the three R system. You can do so by having a communication channel where anyone can offer to donate, sale or buy second-hand items, you could set up a community garden avoiding food packaging have a compost system to reduce food waste.

A man and a boy working on a garden
Photo by CDC on Unsplash
There are tons of things we can do!

The important thing is to start to reduce waste any way you can. And if by any chance struggle to remember the system listen to this song called The Three Rs from the artist and environmental activist called Jack Johnson. It'll be stuck in your head for days!

Irene Aguirre

Copywriter, nature lover and feminist activist

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