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Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle are not enough

Updated: Nov 16, 2021

“Waste” does not exist in nature.

Ecological systems continually recycle water, mineral, and nutrients. They do this through multiple cycles involving the sunlight energy, plants, animals, and bacteria. Humans, on the other hand, create a lot of waste. So much that waste generation is expected to outpace population growth by more than double by 2050[1]. Yikes!

Waste affects everyone. However, those most affected by the negative impacts of waste are society’s most vulnerable. Too often, the environment also pays a high price. Waste contributes to the pollution of our oceans and lakes, and it increases the greenhouse gas effect that contributes to global warming.

According to studies, North Americans produce more waste per person than any other continent[2].

The root problem: in today’s world everything is designed to be disposable. Nothing is made to last.

Think furniture, disposable coffee cups, your smartphone, pair of jeans from your favourite retailer.

We are all part of the problem because we continue to purchase these disposable items. We vote with our wallet for the kind of world we want. Which means that we also have the power to be part of the solution. We all have the responsibility to manage our waste sustainably.


By using the waste management hierarchy. Surely, you have heard of the 3R’s- Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle.

But they’re not cutting it anymore. So, now we have the 5R’s of waste management.

The 5R’s of waste management are Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Repurpose, and Recycle.

In this hierarchy, the top actions are more important as they have the biggest potential to eliminate waste. Hence, the top actions are more desirable than the bottom action. These actions are also the actions that we should employ more often in our journey to zero-waste. In other words, make sure you Refuse more often than you Recycle.

Let’s break down each action in more detail, starting from the top.


Ultimately, the best solution to our waste problem is to not produce any waste in the first place. This is the most important step when it comes to leading a zero-waste lifestyle.

Refuse means choosing to not buy or accept products that you know will end up going in the trash. It means saying “no” to disposable items.

- Do you remember those freebies that companies give away at sponsored events? Think: do you really need this? If you find that you really need that branded pen, by all means, take it and put it to good use. Otherwise, refuse it.

- If you see an item on sale but you don’t need it, think is this necessary? Chances are you are more tempted by the cost savings than the need for the actual product.

- At home, refuse to use chemical solvents and use natural cleaning products instead.

- Refuse to buy paper towels which are disposable and use old towels and rags for cleanings

- Refuse plastic straws and cutlery when dining out.


The next most important action you can take is to reduce what you buy and consume. This step is great for the environment. It also helps you live a less stressful life by practicing simplicity.

- It can be tempting to shop in large quantities because of the discounts, but think how much you actually need. Buying in large amounts can trick your mind to think that you have lots to spare so you waste a lot more.

- Choose products that use less packaging

- Say “no” to junk mail by putting a sign on your letter box

- Take your lunch to school/work in a reusable container

- Think quality over quantity to. Isn’t it better to have 3 pair of pants that make you feel fabulous than 13 than you’re not thrilled about?


You must hear this one a lot! Especially in green marketing: reuseable bags. But how often are we reusing them? For me, reuse means to continue reusing with the occasional repair.

- Rely on items that can be used over and over again. This also connects with the idea of quality over quantity.

- Does your reusable bag have holes in it? Repair it so you can keep reusing it.

- Join a “Buy Nothing” group on Facebook to giveaway toys, books, and anything you may not want

- Shop at second-hand stores to buy items to avoid buying new disposable items.

- Ask friends or family to borrow items instead of buying, especially if you know you will scarcely use them


This action is probably one of my personal favourites because you get to be creative. Yay- Craft time! Repurpose is self-explanatory: make new products out of the item you were going to throw away.

- Have an old stained t-shirt? Make it into cleaning rags

- Yogurt container? Becomes new Tupperware

- Sock with hole? Hair accessory for buns

- Old shoebox? Organizer for dresser!

- Old furniture? Sand and paint for an Instagram-worthy look!


Recycling, especially bluebox recycling, was started as a way to manage our waste problems when packaged foods really started to take over in the 1980’s.

However, have you noticed how recycling allows us to justify using more stuff? I’ve caught myself on the occasion getting a bottle of water because I know I can recycle it. There are a few problems with recycling. Firstly, not everything is actually recycled. Only a portion of blue box is recycled due to contamination and other issues. Secondly, recycling is a resource-intensive process. We don’t need to use up more resources to recycle if we just focus on the top tier actions like Refuse and Reduce.

- Recycle items made of paper, cardboard, plastic (#1-7), tin, and aluminum

- Empty and wash your containers before placing them in the bluebox

- Don’t “wishcycle”- meaning placing a non-recyclable item in the bluebox with the hope that it gets recycled. This is just costly to the processors.

- Buy items made from recycled products like toilet paper and paper towels

Yes, eliminating waste from your life can seem like an uphill battle. Everywhere you turn, there are disposable products being marketed. Just remember, that your every day efforts can have positive impacts. Even if it’s just sharing this blog.

As Anne Marie Bonneau said, “We don’t need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly. We need million of people doing it imperfectly.”

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[1] https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/bitstream/handle/10986/30317/211329ov.pdf?sequence=11&isAllowed=y [2] https://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2019-07-11/how-the-world-can-solve-its-2-billion-ton-trash-problem

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