Sustainability can be a tricky field to navigate. There’s so much information out there, and not all of it is that great. Why can’t it just be easy?! All we want to do is help our planet and fellow human, right?! Why must everything be so complicated?! Let’s start with the basics. Many of us are familiar with the standard 3: reduce, reuse, recycle. Did you know that there are actually 7? Each of the Rs of Sustainability has an important role in our lives – consumption habits, care for our items, and how we ultimately dispose of them at the end of their lives.
Refuse – the First of the 7 Rs of Sustainability
It’s incredible how much “free” stuff we mindlessly take with us, from event swag, handouts from passersby, junk mail, free magazines from stores…. And most of this will just end up in our rubbish or “donation” bins. How do we eliminate this added waste? Just say no. Then, we bring less trash into our homes and lives, which naturally reduces our personal waste! Over time, as more people refuse freebies, people and companies will stop producing as much stuff.
This also applies in our day-to-day shopping lives. Refuse products you don’t need, bottled water, and bring your own reusable bottle. Say no to the plastic cutlery. Refuse fresh produce or foods in unnecessary plastic packaging if you can (looking at you, plastic-wrapped potatoes!). Bring a reusable bag with you so you can refuse plastic bags too!
Reduce – Do You Really Need all that Stuff?
Next up is one most of us will be familiar with. Reduce refers to how much we consume. Most people purchase and consume more food, clothing, and energy than we need or will realistically use. Much of our clothing will be thrown out after one wear. If food waste was a country, it would be the 3rd largest carbon emitter. Not only do our societal consumption habits create GIGANTIC amounts of carbon emissions, but they leave us broke! We spend so much money on things we don’t like and toss without using. If we actively reduced our consumption, think about all the money we’d be saving on top of the emissions!
Reuse – You Have it, Use it!
Use up your items until they’re gone or broken beyond repair. This is, theoretically, an easy concept – use what you have repeatedly, and don’t just go out and buy the new, trendy thing! Arguably, this is one of the most difficult R’s, yet the most important. Our consumerist society depends on us constantly buying things we don’t need. We’re relentlessly encouraged to buy things we don’t need. If we used items until they NEEDED replacing, we’d significantly cut down our waste and carbon footprint.
Repurpose/Repair – The Overlooked Rs of Sustainability
Repurposing is fun – we get to use our creativity to find as many uses for a thing as possible. A common example is repurposing fabrics: when an old shirt or sheet rips, cut it up into cleaning rags/hankies/wipes. We’ve used old record organizers to help organize our pot lids, toilet paper tubes for sprouting seeds and making snowflakes, pasta sauce jars for pantry storage… The list goes on!
Many guides automatically include “repurpose,” but “repair” must be included as well! If your things are repairable, do that first. Simple fixes (ex. holes in clothing, replacing a part in an appliance, sending your shoes to a cobbler) will extend the life of your stuff and save it from landfill.
Recycle – Important, but Over-Hyped
If we can’t use our things anymore for any other purpose, we next try to recycle it. This R isn’t straightforward or easy, filled with grey areas. In some instances, such as glass and metals, recycling is an amazing solution, and everyone should be practicing this if possible! These two substances are infinitely recyclable, which makes them excellent materials to use in packaging and storage. Paper is the next best, as it can only be recycled so many times before losing structural integrity. After that, most paper products can be composted.
Unfortunately, recycling was marketed as the “solution” to our plastic and waste problem for decades now. This is a lie. Big oil ran an expensive ad campaign to convince us that plastics, a petroleum by-product, were endlessly recyclable and it was our habits that were the problem, not their product. Only about 9% of plastics produced are recycled, anyways!
Rot – Compost is Sustainable Lifesaver!
Well, if it can’t be used in any of the other Rs, let’s compost it! Many cities have composting programs you can participate in. If those programs are at capacity or your area doesn’t have that option, home composting is a great option. You’ll save money by making your own compost for your garden and you’ll reduce your carbon emissions. Organic matter, when sent to landfills, doesn’t break down the way we want it to – it decomposes into harmful greenhouse gases like methane or nitrous oxide. These gases are even more harmful and destructive than CO2, leading to faster global warming. So do your best to keep food and other organic material out of the trash bin!
Rethink – Changing Our Habits
The 7th R of Sustainability is “rethink.” If we HAVE to throw away an item, it’s time to rethink it. Do we really need it? Do we need to replace it? Or can we do without? Is there a better/proper way to dispose of it (like with electronics and batteries)? An easy way to revaluate our waste is to complete a waste audit for your home. This way, you can easily see where you’re generating the most waste and you can tackle those areas first!
When we change how we think about a problem, we naturally start changing our behaviours. Example: if we view our earthly resources as limited (which they are), we start treating them like the valuable resource they are and work to reduce our consumption. This whole process takes time and practice to get down, and we’ll still mess up! That’s okay – we’re not looking for perfection, just progress!
Which of the Rs of sustainability is your favourite? What do you struggle with the most?