The 5 R's

by Elena Gebhard - Social and Political Science  Student at the University of York

OCTOBER 28, 2020

The 5 R’s to a Low Waste Life

Only when the last tree has died and the last river been poisoned and the last fish been caught will we realise we cannot eat money 

 – Cree Indian Proverb

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. 

Such is the classic ‘3R’ mantra that has been drilled into all of us over the past few decades by environmentalists and governments alike. 

But to what effect? Global statistics have shown a major increase in waste over the past 50 years, arguably in part due to our growing population and increased urbanised way of life. However, global annual waste is expected to rise to 3.4. BILLION TONNES a year by 2050, up from 2.01 billion tonnes in 2016. This is a problem that needs to be taken seriously. 

To put this number into perspective, think about it this way: 1 million seconds equate to 11.5 days; 1 billion seconds equate to 31.5 YEARS. 

Not only does this increase in waste pose a risk to the well-being of our planet, but the inefficient disposal of it can cause harm to our waterways and ecosystems, both of which are vital to the survival of the earth’s inhabitants, including us humans.

Nevertheless, there are ways to curb and deal with this issue. In 2013, Bea Johnson published ‘Zero Waste Home’, a book aiming to deliver a practical step-by-step guide to reducing your 

waste. She tells the story of how her family of four managed to go from a ‘normal’ household to one that produced only about a mason jar’s worth of waste yearly! 

    By reviewing the foundational ‘3R’ principle, she introduces her own ‘5 R’ model to living a low waste lifestyle. The 5 R’s are as follows:


  • Refuse: Decline the things you don’t need

  • Reduce: Let go of things that do not add value to your life by adopting a simpler and more minimalist lifestyle

  • Reuse: Swap one-use items for reusable and more durable alternatives

  • Recycle: Recycle the things which you cannot refuse, reduce or reuse

  • Rot: Compost the rest of your household waste, such as food scraps and other organic waste


    This may seem like a daunting concept at first, and to be completely realistic, being truly zero waste is not accessible to everyone for many practical reasons. However, this should not mean that the decision to try and live as low waste as possible is not worth it – every little bit counts. 

How to: the 5 R’s of Zero/Low Waste Living




1. Refuse – Start saying no to the unnecessary


This might be by far the most important R when it comes to reducing the amount of waste that enters your household. Learning to say no to redundant products is a muscle that can be trained and will help you immensely when it comes to liberating yourself from excess waste. 

Refusing plastic bags at grocery stores has become a wide-known idea, so here is a list of other rather unnecessary items you can refuse:

  • Freebies: Companies tend to give out freebies to promote their products, which is a nice gesture, but just because you have the option of accepting them does not mean that you’re obliged to do so. 

  • Business cards: Instead of accepting a piece of cardboard that will most likely land in the bin, why not take a picture of it instead?

  • Single-use plastic: Whether that be coffee cups, straws or cutlery, all of these items can be replaced with more durable, sustainable alternatives. 


2. Reduce – Quality over Quantity


In a world where so many products are sold as ‘necessary’ and ‘life changing’, it can be very hard to recognise what you truly need. Try to take a step back and reconsider what honestly adds value to your life and what does not. 

Start this evaluation by asking yourself the following questions:

  • Do I genuinely need this item, or do I already have something with a similar purpose at home?

  • Does this item add value to my life?

  • Will I be using this for a long period of time?

  • Is it something that is worth taking up space in my physical and mental environment?

  • Will it support my long-term happiness?



3. Reuse – Find sustainable alternatives


Nowadays you will be able to find reusable and durable alternatives for any disposable item on the market. Not only will investing in sustainable alternatives save you money in the long run, but the planet will thank you for it too!

But before you go out and buy new, albeit reusable, items, see what you can find in your home – you might be surprised by what you’ve already got. 

Some ideas – try replacing:

  • Plastic vegetable bags at grocery stores - reusable and washable cotton bags

  • One-life dish towels & paper towels - washable dish cloths

  • New fast fashion clothes - Second-hand clothes found at charity shops or other

  • Paper coffee cups & plastic water bottles - any reusable coffee mug & water bottle

  • Plastic take-out containers - reusable Tupperware 



4. Recycle – What you cannot refuse, reduce or reuse


After having gone through steps 1-3 there will hopefully only be very little you’ll need to recycle. The idea here is that you only recycle what you cannot refuse, reduce or reuse. 

But aren’t we supposed to be recycling more? Well, yes and no. 

Yes, we should recycle what can be recycled and avoid letting such items go to the landfill. 

But no, if we actually manage to reduce our waste then we should also reduce what goes to the recycling centres. This process is still very energy intensive and more often than not, items are transformed into disposable items which in return cannot be recycled anymore. So overall, recycling is a good option, but keep in mind that it is the 4th step on the list!



5. Rot – Give the rest back 


Finally, if these steps are followed diligently, the last waste items you’re likely to end up with are food scraps. Think about composting these at home!

But I don’t want to stink my house out/I don’t have time to compost.

Fair points, but there are other ways that do not involve heavy smells or a lot of your time. Vermiculture is a great option for those with no outdoor garden. It allows thousands of worms to transform your food scraps into useable mineral rich soil! And it does not give off a stinky smell, contrary to popular assumption. 

Other ways of at-home-composting include Bokashi fermentation, a form of composting that might sound more appealing than the previous and that is just as accessible in garden-less homes.

And if composting at home is really not an option, look into green bin or composting programmes offered in your local area!



It should be made clear that perfection is not the goal here. Any type of improvement is better than nothing. Being truly zero waste might not be accessible to the masses, so this is simply meant to encourage you to focus on lowering your waste output.

If it all seems a little overwhelming, try applying the 5Rs to only one area of your life first (whether that be food, clothing, beauty products, etc.) before making your way through the others. 


At the end of the day, every little step taken towards a less wasteful life is one step further in the right direction. Eventually, all those strides will amount to make an impactful difference to the planet and its inhabitants, and that is the real goal. 


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