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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Reduce, Reuse, Recycle your way to a greener life

(if you live in the Los Angeles area, see my LA-specific post on recent recycling initiatives.)

There is probably no clearer sign of the negative impact modern life has on the planet than the amount of trash we create just by living. At 1,609 pounds of trash annually per person, the United States is the #1 producer of trash in the world. Fortunately, there are many ways to lower your trash output, and the 3Rs, reduce, reuse, recycle, are key to this effort.

One thing to note is that the 3Rs are in a hierarchical order in terms of importance. Reducing is the highest impact way to reduce your impact on the earth, reusing is next and recycling is last (important, but not as impactful as reducing or reusing.) So, on to the steps:

The first step is to reduce your consumption by buying fewer products or choosing products with less packaging thereby reducing waste. The second step is to reuse, repair or repurpose products to extend their life-span such as using an old car tire as a funky planter in your garden. The third “r” is recycle which means “to process materials that would otherwise be considered waste into raw materials and new products” such as turning a glass bottle into a glass tile. Recycling is in some ways the most difficult of the “Rs” because it can be hard to find recycling plants locally for every product, but recycling is even more important now than ever before because:

  1. By recycling we are saving the energy needed to obtain and process “virgin” raw materials. For instance it takes less energy to recycle an aluminum can than to go out and mine the metal. Also, as materials get harder to obtain it’ll be even more important to recycle. A single ton of junked PCs has more gold than 17 tons of ore.
  2. We are running out of landfills, and as landfills fill-up it means we need to transport our trash farther and farther away which wastes gas and adds to carbon dioxide emissions (a leading cause of global warming.)

Besides these important reasons to recycle, there are some staggering statistics about what we throw away:

  • The world’s largest manmade object is the Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island
  • Every three months American landfill enough aluminum to rebuild our entire commercial airfleet
  • Making paper from recycled paper reduces contributions to air pollution by 95%
  • Recycling a stack of newspaper 3 feet tall saves a tree
  • Making products from recycled reduces contributions to water pollution by 50%

But what’s recyclable? Well, some items are fairly straight forward to recycle: aluminum and tin cans, glass bottles and newspapers are recyclable just about everywhere in the U.S. Some cities have recycle bins that get picked up with the trash, in other cities you have to take these items to a local grocery store or community college for drop-off. But without a doubt, these items are easily recyclable and if you take them to a location like a grocery store you can often get cash back for these items. Other items that are easily recycled if you have a local Home Depot or Target are compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs), which should never be thrown away because they contain a small amount of mercury and rechargeable batteries (including laptop and cell-phone batteries). Simply take CFLs and rechargeable batteries to your local Home Depot or Target and ask where their drop-off point is. Also, most “shipping stores” will take clean styrofoam peanuts off your hands.

However, some statistics estimate that about 75% of what is thrown away can be recycled, but since recycling happens at the city level the rules for what can be recycled are different for everyone. Some cities such as Los Angeles have curbside recycling programs that take back all plastics and even styrofoam, in addition to the usual metal/glass/paper, so it is possible to recycle these items on a large scale and if your town or city doesn’t’ have a recycling program, write to your mayor or councilperson to push for one.

Fortunately, there are a few good resources that can help you sort out what you can recycle (or donate for reuse) and how. Almost anything from prom dresses to make-up has a way of avoiding the landfill so keep these websites on-hand for future reference. And if you don’t find what you need here, try listing your item as “free” on an on-line resource such as You can give away just about anything using, which is completely free to use for this sort of thing.

As with all steps to lead a “greener” life, take it one step at a time. Start with the “easy” items such as aluminum/glass/newspaper and step by step you can start reducing your trash even more. Eventually you’ll find that the vast majority of your “trash” is able to be recycled, reused or repurposed in some way and you can feel good about the fact that you are making a real impact on reducing your “footprint” on the planet and leaving your children and grandchildren a planet worth living on!


National Recycling Coalition: interactive map listing state recycling resources

COOP America’s “21 things you didn’t know you could recycle” guide

LIME media guide to “how to recycle everything.” Includes many great resources for organizations that take donations of everything from old prom dresses to eyeglasses.


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