You have probably heard of the three R’s “reduce, reuse, recycle” ♻️. It’s a great memory hook! Schools teach them, and waste management facilities, NGOs, and governmental agencies all over the world love to use them to educate the general public.
There are many more R’s out there, and many people have extended the three basic R’s. I once even saw a very impressive and inspiring list of more than twenty R’s for a more sustainable life—including respect and recover, two important aspect that receive far too little attention! I want to encourage you to use the three R’s to build your very own memory hook that works for you!
My Personal R’s
For me, my personal R’s are:
- RETHINK—Be empowered!
- REDUCE—Less is more
- REPAIR—Prolong the lifespan of things
- REUSE—Reusables instead of disposables
- RECYCLE—Divide and conquer
1. Rethink—Be Empowered!
Personally, I believe zero waste is first and foremost a shift in mentality towards empowerment. In finding an open mind to try new things we learn to challenge the status quo and to tread our own path to happiness. It is easy to dismiss the idea as too restrictive, too constraining. But I like to argue that this is a very deficit-oriented way to look at things.
It isn’t surprising that we tend to think of all the things we would have to “give up” when we first stumble upon the idea of zero waste. We are bombarded with advertisements left and right telling us how much better our life would be if we only bought this fancy car, use that particular brand’s deodorant, or drink water from that certain mountain in France. Yet happiness in the US peaked in the 50ies. “All in all, we have more stuff and less happiness,” McKibben concludes in his book Deep Ecology: Economy as if the World Mattered (p. 35-36).
Material things do not make us happy in the long run, because we get used to them very quickly and then the novelty wears off. What does make us happy is financial security in the sense of not having to deal with existential threats that come with poverty. After this threshold is reached, happiness does not increase with more money. However, our happiness does increase when we spend time with friends, our partner, and with good mental health. And most interestingly, doing good—giving back, lending support to others, volunteering for a cause—also makes us happy.
In my book, that is quite the strong case pro doing good and contra consumerism with all its cruel externalized costs like exploitation and pollution. I know, facing change is scary, but living your life more in alignment with your values and discovering a whole new world along the way makes it all worth it, I promise.
2. Reduce—Less Is More
We all have them at home—the bad buys: the neglected clothes in our closet that make us feel guilty whenever we see them, the piles of business cards with faceless names, enough pens to last us 526 years, take out menus of places we will never order from, annoying junk mail, and bottles of shampoo and body wash so tiny they would even look lost in a doll house.
At one point, all those things had to be manufactured, packaged, and transported. And yes, all of that ate up precious resources.
So instead of hoarding redundant and unused items, doesn’t it make more sense to give it to somebody who will put those things to good use? By redistributing things, we do not have to use up already scarce resources to produce even more stuff to fulfill demand!
Tip: Pare down and give your things a second life
All those things you are not using or do not really need had to be produced at one point. It’s a waste of resources to have them collect dust at your home. Donate or sell them. This way, someone else can reuse your things instead of buying new products, using up more resources.
You can donate your things to Good Will, or you can give them away using local Facebook groups. You can also sell clothes and electronics on ebay, Craigslist, at a flea market or host a garage sale. Nowadays, there are more and more swap parties where you can swap your unwanted stuff with one another. Everybody leaves happy and nobody had to spend a dime :).
3. Repair—Prolong the Lifespan of Things
We live in a day and age when gadgets are only cool until the next model is introduced only months later, when new fast fashion stores are supplied new collections every week, when buying a new printer is cheaper than replacing the ink. There is a term for that: planned obsolescence. Things are designed to be short-lived so we can replace them faster. But it doesn’t have to be this way. A lot of items can be repaired, mended, or patched up to squeeze some more life out of them. Whenever you do make a purchase, do your homework and opt for quality and repairability.
If you yourself do not have the skills to fix everything yourself, you can obviously have things repaired in a shop, or you can go to a so-called repair café, where neighbors help each other repair things! It is a great social activity and I love how it connects people.
4. Reuse—Reusables instead of Disposables
Single-use items are great—for the companies that sell them. Items like cotton balls, wipes, or paper towels are consumables. This means they must constantly be replaced, and we have to keep spending money to buy them. Luckily, there is a reusable alternative for almost every single-use item!
To me, reusing things also mean to opt for used, pre-owned, secondhand items. There is more than enough stuff in this world already. All it takes is to redistribute it to where it is needed! This way, we do not have to waste our precious and scarce resources on producing more and more stuff.
Tip: Replace Disposables
- Disposable razors – electric shaver, straight-edge razor, double-blade razor
- Cotton rounds – washable cotton rounds
- Tissues – handkerchiefs
- Paper towels – microfibre or cotton cloths
- Paper napkins – cloth napkins (or just use handkerchiefs)
- Dish sponge – cotton cloth
- Tea bags – loose tea and a tea strainer/ french press
- Coffee pads/ filter cones – french press/ reusable coffee filter cones or pads
- Baking parchment – grease the cake pan/ silicon mat
- Tin foil/ cling film – put it in a food container or jar, or wrap it in a dish towel
- Paper bags/ plastic bags – bring your own cloth/ tote bag
- Disposable lunch bags – stainless steel food containers, mason jars, dish towels
- Bottled water – a good quality glass or stainless steel water bottle (preferably plastic-free or at least BPA-free) and tap water; if you do not trust tap water cook it beforehand (you use it for cooking anyway, right)
- Toothpics – turkey lacers
- Muffin paper liners – grease your muffin tray
- Trash bags/ bin liners – at some point you might not need those anymore ;), until then go for newpaper origami
- Cleaning wipes – microfibre or cotton cloth and your homemade vinegar cleaning solution (1/4 cup distilled vinegar + 1 cup of water)
- Toilet paper – a bottle, water, soap and a washcloth
Also, pack your lunches in reusable food containers and bring your own containers to restaurants and stores.
Now after you have gotten into your new mindset (rethink), reduced your consumption by axing superfluous items and opting for quality over quantity, repaired what you can so you didn’t have to buy something new, and gotten into the habit of reusing as much as possible, you should be left with a lot less trash compared to before. Recycle whatever is recyclable. Learn about your municipality’s recycling policy and system in place. If they offer compost bins, awesome! If they do not, consider looking into composting at home as the most eco-friendly way to recycle unavoidable waste (kitchen scraps). Composting at home means no emissions caused by transport and no valuable resources wasted on running a big treatment facility, either. Now all there’s left is divide and conquer, baby!
Now Find What Works for You! 💚
There is no one-size-fits-all solution. We are all different, have access to a different infra structure, face different challenges and are in different places in our lives. So it’s your turn now 😊!
Personally, I believe being empowered is about embracing your inner badass-ness and to not be afraid to make things your own. Here are some more R’s for you to choose from to make your own memory hook!
Some More Zero Waste Tips
- Buying in big supermarkets often mean more packaging, even in the produce section. Shop at the farmer’s market or at small local stores. They are usually also very more open to individual solutions
- Take out your phone and take pictures of pamphlets or business cards. Accept the information, but not the physical item! This way you have all the crucial information on you at all times. I mean, cross my heart, I’d lose those cards anyway, but I am very careful not to lose my phone!
- Freebies like pens or swag bags are tempting. VERY tempting. To be honest, I am actually a cheap person. I was brought up in a bargain hunting crazed family. We would spend a LOT of money on useless cheap things just because they were a steal. What helped me resist the temptation to always grab everything free within my arm’s reach was to remind myself of the horrible carbon footprint, the exploitation of workers, and how in the end, those things will be come clutter and a problem. Too useless to keep, too “good” to throw away.