The 5 Rs: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rot


You may have heard the zero waste living phrase; refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle and rot. These Rs are the 5 words used to describe the “waste hierarchy” and specify the actions needed to reduce the amount of waste you generate. 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.

What are the 5Rs of Zero Waste?

You may have also noticed that some environmentalists and zero wasters mention more than just the 5 Rs. They include refuse, reduce, reuse, repair, rot, repurpose and recycle which goes even further to reduce waste.

Reduce, reuse, reuse, recycle and rot are the basic hierarchically Rs of reducing waste. This means the 1st R is more important than the others 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. 
  • Reduce: Goes hand-in-hand with refuse. Reduce waste including food waste and the number of products you buy overall.
  • Reuse: Keep items out of the waste system by reusing them.
  • Recycle: If you’ve not been able to discard 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.
  • Rot: This is particularly important to reduce food waste.

Let’s take a look at this list in more detail below


1. Refuse

Refuse forces you to think about your actions daily, as the most important action to take here is to say no to single-use throwaway products such as plastic water bottles, disposable plates, cutlery, straws and cups etc. You can apply this to environmental impact as a whole, and not just when it comes to minimising waste. Think about pesticides, toxins and production processes that harm the environment. Refusing harm overall is very powerful, but can be tricky especially where choice is limited.

Many countries are now charging for supermarket carrier bags so that can be an easy one to refuse for many of us who are used to taking our own bags to the supermarket. However, even where you have to pay for carrier bags things like produce bags are often still available and hard to recycle. Why not get a reusable produce bag along with a reusable bread bag for your freshly baked rolls and goodies?

A few other ideas for refusing are:

  • Plastic water bottles are an obvious one of course
  • Overly processed food-like products, that pretends to be good for you and come in plastic packaging. Go for fresh fruits and vegetables that you can cook at home, it’s better for you, your waistline and the planet
  • Samples and giveaways, unless you absolutely need them they will likely end up in the bin anyway
  • Junk mail is often difficult to avoid, but where you can – don’t take the flyer, the free magazine or even a business card
  • Cheap fast fashion, that is unethically made and created with fabrics that are synthetic and harmful to the environment
  • Soaps and other personal care products, packaged in hard to recycle or non-recyclable bottles. Why not try bar soaps and refill options

2. Reduce

Many of the products we buy will end up in landfills so buying only what is necessary, especially for those made of plastic and hard to recycle/biodegrade components is super important. Think about buying better quality and more sustainable so that items will last longer and have a smaller environmental impact.

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. Especially those in plastic and hard to recycle packaging. 

Consider upgrading your gadgets less frequently. Stretch out using your devices for as long as they are usable and not just for as long as they stay fashionable.

We always recommend shopping with intent, especially when it comes to clothing or anything you will commonly buy on impulse. Or items that you tend to buy when you’re feeling a little down. Just in the same way as you should avoid grocery shopping when hungry, avoiding any type of shopping that is emotionally charged is wise.

Think about what you’re buying.

  • How often will you use it?
  • How long will you use it?
  • Do you really need it?
  • Will you still want it next week?

These are really important questions to ask when you buy new things. If you follow this advice, you’ll probably notice that you have more money to save for early retirement or to invest in a durable asset.

3. Reuse

There is no doubt that our throwaway culture is harming the planet. That’s why encouraging each other to reuse items is a more sustainable practice. Not too long ago, reusing was the norm.

Let’s take a look at a few amazing things you can use again:

  • Glass jars can be reused to freeze food and leftovers
  • Buy cloth napkins like these rather than paper
  • Get reusable water bottles like these from 24Bottles that can be washed and used many times
  • Use airtight containers or cover food with a plate instead of wrapping things in clingfilm
  • Say no to disposable cutlery, plastic cups and paper plates go for durable and reusable instead
  • Swap paper towels for a cloth rag where you can
  • Give up the coffee pods and tea bags and go for a French press or tea strainer

4. Recycle

We have all been led to believe that we have to recycle our plastics to help save the environment, but unfortunately, not all plastics are easily recycled. Some plastics will get landfilled or incinerated regardless as they are too expensive to recycle. In our opinion, non-recyclable / degradable products should only be made as a last resort, and a clear plan for the product’s end of life should then be in place to ensure responsible and sustainable disposal – but we still have some way to go here.

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.

What should I recycle at home?

Think of recycling as a last resort and read about the recycling process within your local area as this will give you an idea of what can and can’t be recycled. In general, you can recycle a range of plastics including plastic drinks bottles, cans, glass and textiles. But as mentioned this greatly varies by country and local area, so please check locally for the best approach.

Related: Can you Recycle Parchment Paper

5. Rot

Food waste that ends up in landfills will struggle to rot naturally because of the way landfills are packed. Landfills are created to contain waste and stop chemicals from leaching into the ground not to help it decompose, which means there’s not a lot of oxygen that circulates. Food waste needs oxygen and bacteria to rot, making it an impossible process within a landfill.

On the other hand, waste often gets incinerated, burning potential fertiliser that will preserve and enrich the soil.

Collecting food scraps for your curbside compost or creating your own composting project will help to save a tremendous amount of waste from landfills.

When starting your own composting project, you will need both brown and green materials, which means you can also rot brown waste such as cardboard as an added bonus. Composting can be a fun project for the family, don’t let living in an apartment put you off as you can compost in an apartment as well.

Why Should We Work to Reduce Waste?

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 they will be discarded by recycling companies. 

Marine life and sea birds eat the plastics that 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. That’s such a terrible thought!

Scientists have discovered tiny micro and nano plastics in the arctic ice. These particles are far away from industrial operations which means they 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 of better quality so that it lasts longer and will cost less over its lifetime.

More Ideas on How to Reduce Waste

  • 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 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 them to the dump.
  • Support small, local and eco-friendly businesses that are committed to reducing waste throughout their manufacturing process.

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