Your Complete Guide to Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle


You may have heard many zero waste bloggers and advocates use the terms refuse, reduce, reuse and recycle. The term is called the “waste hierarchy” and specifies the actions needed to reduce the amount of waste generated. Waste has become a real problem as there isn’t such a thing as throwing something away. Away doesn’t exist it still has to go somewhere either to be recycled, landfilled or incinerated.

Unfortunately, only 10% of plastic has ever been recycled as the recycling process in itself has been exposed as a bit of a con.

If you haven’t watched the Plastic Wars and would like to learn more, you can watch it on Youtube.

You may have also noticed that some environmentalists and zero wasters mention more than just the 3 Rs. They include Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Repair, Rot and Recycle which goes even further to reduce waste.

Reduce, reuse, recycle and the additional Rs listed are hierarchical. This means one is more important than the other if we can’t refuse, then reduce. If you can’t reduce then reuse and so on. Let’s look at what each R mean and how you can implement it:

Refuse: Say no to single-use plastic and other single-use disposable items as much as you possibly and practically can. 

Refuse single-use plastic water bottles, disposable plates, cutlery, straws and cups etc.

Reduce: Goes hand-in-hand with refuse. Reduce waste including food waste and the number of products you buy overall. Especially those in plastic and hard to recycle packaging. 

Many of the products we buy will end up in landfill so buying only what is necessary. But at a better quality so that it will last longer is very important. Also, consider buying secondhand. There are many online thrift stores and charity shops available where you can buy secondhand items. Websites such as Facebook Marketplace and eBay are great for finding real bargains for practically new items.

Reuse: Keep items out of the waste system by reusing them. E.g. you can reuse glass jars for freezing food and leftovers. Buy non-disposable items such as cloth napkins like these and reusable water bottles like these from 24Bottles that can be washed and used many times.

Repair: Repairing items was quite common up until the late 80s early 90s. If your TV or other appliances were broken you’d take it to someone to repair. Most people will just throw it away and get a new one as some appliances are impossible to repair. It’s important to repair the items that can be repaired. Simply replacing them just adds to the landfill and waste management problem we currently have. 

Things that are easy to repair is clothing, you can even upcycle both clothing and furniture items. Vintage has made a comeback, and it allows you to cultivate your own unique style. Your stuff won’t look like everyone else’s run of the mill flat-pack furniture. And you won’t be wearing the same dress as the next person. 

Rot: This is particularly important to reduce food waste. Food waste that ends up in landfill will struggle to rot naturally because of the way landfills are packed. Or in many cases, it will get incinerated. You can also rot brown waste such as cardboard etc. 

For a full list of compostable items see our post “what is compostable“. Note that some local authorities offer curbside compost bins. Please check with your council as to what you can put in your bin. Most curbside compost bins will not allow brown materials such as cardboard.

Recycle: If you’ve not been able to discard of items using any of the above-mentioned options, recycling is listed last with reason. It is the last resort option as the process is notoriously ineffective. Plastic is one of the most under recycled items. Most countries sell their plastic waste to third world countries where regulation is hard to enforce. 

These plastics can then end up in the environment and the ocean as anything that can’t be recycled is often dumped in communities or burned in the open without controlling toxic gasses.

Glass recycling is a bit better. Although in the US around 33% of glass is recycled compared to 90% in Switzerland and other European countries. Cans are also easier to recycle than plastic.

Related: Can you Recycle Parchment Paper


Why Should We Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle?

As mentioned earlier, many of our items that are intended for recycling will end up in the ocean. Other items will be burned in communities within the third world without much care for the health of local people. This is because most first world countries sell their recycling to third world countries such as Indonesia, India and China. 

Although China is no longer accepting the volumes they have previously, other countries are filling the gap without being able to cope with the volume. Many plastics are also not financially viable to recycle so it will be discarded by recycling companies. 

Marine life and sea birds are eating the plastics end up in the ocean or on the shore. They can’t digest the plastic so will inevitably starve to death because their stomachs don’t have any space for food. It’s filled with non-digestible plastic.

Scientists have discovered tiny micro and nano plastics in the arctic ice. These particles are far away from industrial operations which means it travelled there via the ocean and rain/snow clouds. It is a global problem.

There has also been a recent discovery that plastic is collecting in our bodies and organs. Scientists are currently unsure of how it will affect our health. But in all fairness, I don’t see how it can not affect us negatively. Plastic is made from all kinds of nasty chemicals including BPA, a substance that disrupts hormone function. BPA in small doses might be safe. But we are exposed to so much plastic daily that the accumulated risk can be problematic. Companies have started to develop plastics without BPA, but the substituted ingredients aren’t necessarily safer.

Just like environmental toxins that are generated in the industrialised world, micro and nano plastic particles are a real concern and threat to human health.

With these risks, I’m definitely following a process of reducing, reusing and recycling as a minimum. And also buying less stuff at a better quality so that it lasts longer and will cost less over its lifetime.

More Ideas on How to Refuse, Reduce, Reuse and Recycle

  • Buy items in bulk or with no packaging. Zero-waste stores often allow you to use reusable containers. Visit our zero waste section to find products that are more natural with less packaging.
  • See if you can find nearly new items before buying new. See our online thrift store article for links to amazing thrift stores.
  • Buy reusable items rather than disposable such as compostable cloths instead of paper kitchen towel. 
  • Take a packed lunch for work or when travelling as takeaway foods and sandwiches are usually wrapped in plastic.
  • Upcycle and repair old clothing and furniture.
  • Borrow, rent or share appliances that you won’t use regularly rather than buying your own.
  • Donate or sell old items that are still working, rather than taking it to the dump.
  • Support small, local and eco-friendly businesses who are committed to reducing waste throughout their manufacturing process.

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