The three R’s : Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. We’ve had it drilled into our heads since grade school (speaking for Canada here). But have you ever sat a moment to consider each of the acts? Let me quickly say the point of this post is not to detract from the positive elements of any of the options, as all are important. However, I do believe they can be ranked in order of preference: 1) Reduce 2) Reuse 3) Recycle.
Starting from the bottom up, let’s consider why. Recycling has hit the mainstream public consciousness as second nature to many. It is certainly an important part of living sustainably, and has economic benefits as well by creating demand for processing recycled materials. However, in comparison to the other two R’s, it has a couple of main elements that keep it my 3rd choice:
- You can’t recycle everything.
- The process of recycling has its own pollution element that offsets some of the benefits.
Essentially, you have a limitation and an offsetting element that hinder the potential benefits. Here are two links for those interested in more detailed information on some of the benefits and disadvantages of recycling.
Moving along, consider the act of reusing. Reusing is my second favourite option, as it works hand in hand with the act of reducing to lower demand for new products by reusing old.
Of course, not everything can be reused. However many things can, and eco-minded (and plain old conservative minded) folks can be innovative in what they reuse and how they do it. For example, check out this article on innovative ways to reuse common household items for crafty individuals (via @GreenSmith on Twitter). Using some of the ideas, one might envision their next gift giving event becoming that much more sustainable**, as follows:
Reuse an egg box to mix paint, that you can then splatter on reused newspaper with an old, reused toothbrush for nice, crafty wrapping paper. You can even skip the tape and reuse a string or ribbon to tie it! And if you need to glue anything for added effect, reuse a burnt out match stick as a dabber.
I may or may not have purposefully used the word “reuse” as many times as possible in there for added emphasis! In other words, if you can find a “re”-use for it, give’r. Not only can it be fun, but reusing can be more sustainable than recycling as well.
Finally, we reach my top choice of the three R’s: Reduce. Reducing is available to everyone, and applicable to everything. It undermines the need to have to reuse or recycle in the first place–the less you use, the less waste you will create to throw out/recycle/reuse. In some cases, this can include a lower cost financially as well–such as reducing the amount of lights you leave on at home.
In spite of the passive nature of the act, I believe that reducing one’s consumption and in turn, environmental footprint, is a strong proactive approach to maintaining a sustainable lifestyle. You have to make the choices to forgo certain comforts or use less of certain products than you or people you know normally would, and these are not always easy to do.
The concept itself, however, is as straightforward as it gets–live simply, tread lightly; in other words, use less. As Adam Shake from Twilight Earth puts it: “Sometimes the greenest thing to do is to do nothing at all.” In a great example, he notes how it is “greener” to recycle your water bottle, but even better to not buy bottled water in the first place — a point expanded on from his post on “pre-cycling”: “Recycling is great, but keeping recyclables out of the recycle stream is Greener than recycling.”
Ultimately, the no-limits, accessible, extra-benefit approach makes Reduce the clear first choice against Reuse and Recycle–and again, this is not to say the other two are not important.
There are a lot of grey areas I haven’t touched on in my very brief and general analysis of the three R’s here. Whether or not you agree with my assertions, the point is to get you thinking about making conscious choices, considering your intentions and what your actions mean for the environment.
**Even more sustainable would be to find ways of spending time or other non-consumerism-related activities to “give” (working with the notion of reduce).
Creative Commons Attribution: “KL Design Week 2009“, Flickr, myadlan