Most people have heard of the three R’s: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. Zero-wasters usually add two more, but those two are very important. They are Refuse and Rot. Thus we have five R’s: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rot.
Refuse: This is the first line of defence against waste. Just say no to things that will create waste. Refuse the plastic straw in your drink. Refuse to buy items wrapped in layer upon layer of plastic. Refuse plastic bags at the grocery store. Refusing is the most efficient way to reduce your waste, since it doesn’t bring in any waste!
Reduce: This is almost as important as Refuse, but not quite as effective. Reducing is to lower your intake of goods. Do I really need to buy those plastic forks for special occasions when I have quite enough regular cutlery and a functioning dishwasher? Do I need those summery yellow plastic cups when I already have summery blue plastic cups? Do I need that new gadget when I don’t use most of the ones sitting at home? But this doesn’t only refer to reducing your plastic intake. Perhaps I don’t need three varieties of salsa in my refrigerator. Glass is highly recyclable, but it still consumes a lot of energy to produce. We’ll come to recycling in a moment.
Reuse: The best application of this rule is to use things like reusable water bottles (preferably not plastic ones) and reusable shopping bags. These cut waste a lot as you aren’t buying disposable drink bottles every time you’re thirsty and you aren’t sending plastic bags to landfill every time you grocery shop. However, the third R is also known as Repurpose. Essentially, don’t throw something out until you’ve totally used it up. Just finished a jar of pickles? Don’t throw out the jar, use it as a storage container! Have some old sneakers that you don’t wear anymore? Before you dump them, consider repurposing them as unique planters. This technique has been around for ages, so a simple search for “repurpose XYZ” may turn up some great ideas.
Recycle: This is the big one. The important one. The one about which everyone thinks, “I recycle. I must be green!” Problem is, that’s not particularly true. See, some materials can be fully recycled. A glass jar can be melted down and formed into a new glass jar. No material is lost. A tin can can be melted down and formed into a new tin can. No material is lost. However, both of these processes require a lot of energy. Not nearly as much energy as making a new glass jar or a new tin can requires, but still quite a bit. The actual amount depends on the material. Using recycled aluminum instead of new aluminum costs about 95% less, whereas recycled paper versus new paper costs about 45% less and recycled glass versus new glass costs about 21% less. The savings from recycling plastic are much more tricky to compute, because it’s difficult to truly “recycle” plastic. Most plastic can only be “downcycled”, meaning it has lost some of it’s integrity, and can only be used for less valuable products. For example, most soda bottles can only be downcycled into plastic fibers for rugs and such. This is not a closed loop, and so all plastic will eventually end up in the landfill. That’s why plastic is such an environmental danger. All of these factors mean that recycling, though very important, should not be our first line of defence against waste. That’s why Recycle is fourth out of five rules to be followed.
Rot: This is exactly what it sounds like. If you’ve Refused, Reduced, Reused, and Recycled whatever you can, then let the rest Rot. And by that, I mean compost it. Of course, you can’t compost some things. And not everyone has a convenient place to compost. But everyone certainly makes food waste, so getting a small composter is an excellent way to reduce some of your ickier waste from going to the landfills.
Now, how am I personally going about implementing these rules?
Refuse: I am staying away from items packaged with plastic, especially when grocery shopping. This is very difficult, and it means there are some things that I just can’t buy. But I find it a fun puzzle to figure out where I can buy something without packaging. I am also refusing things like straws and I’m not taking out food, since those both create reasonless waste.
Reduce: I’m a university student. I don’t have a lot of needs. But there are still things that I can (and perhaps should) do without. Cookies, for example… There’s quite a lot of waste in the way that typical cookies are packaged, and I would do well to eat less sugar. So no more store-bought cookies! Homemade cookies, on the other hand, I’m quite willing to eat. I intend to start making them myself, but haven’t got around to it yet. Maybe sometime this weekend.
Reuse: I implement this primarily by buying household objects used, instead of new. I also keep glass food jars to reuse them, since I need more storage containers anyway.
Recycle: I’ve been brought up with a blue bin and a black bin, so this is second nature to me. Paper in one, plastic and glass in the other (only there shouldn’t really be any glass going in. I can reuse glass!) Make sure to recycle everything is a little more difficult, though.
Rot: I’m only doing this through the city-provided green bin. I’d like to start composting myself, but I also haven’t got around to it. It takes a bit more effort and time than I have to spare at the moment.
So those are my zero-waste practices at the moment! As time goes on, I’ll figure out new ways to reduce my waste, and start enforcing some of the rules more strongly. I’ve got to live on this planet for the rest of my life, so I’m going to do my part to keep it clean(ish).
PS: I have a Facebook page for the blog now! You can check it out at www.facebook.com/studentwithless/. I will be actively posting content there as well as here, so you can follow me there and still keep up with everything I post here. Cheers!