As a part of my Earth Day contemplations I decided to take a look at the Three R’s more closely, and get a little bit better feel for what they really mean. We’ve all heard the phrase “Reduce, Reuse, Recyle,” and seen the pretty logo with the three green arrows that represents the triad. But how many of us really follow any but the Third “R” — recycling our trash and sleeping soundly thinking we’ve done our part?
Origins of the Three R’s
I’ve known for a long time that the First “R”, “Reduce”, is the one that deserves more attention, and I’ve admired folks who host clothing swaps and buy fuel efficient vehicles in an attempt to follow its mantra. What I didn’t know, until I took a closer look, is that the Three R’s were actually proposed as a hierarchy, in order of importance. The phrase was coined in relation to solid waste reduction, and today forms both an important aspect of waste reduction in manufacturing, and a clear way to look at sustainable practices as a consumer. Tim Lang, Sustainability Coordinator at the University of Toronto, put it this way:
[Many people] focus on recycling, but recycling is meant to be the last of those three options. Recycling only comes into the equation when you have something you must dispose of. If you don’t generate the waste in the first place, then you don’t have to figure out how to deal with it. Many people forget that if you reduce the amount of waste you produce, or re-use it, then you will have also less material to throw out or recycle.
For this year I’ve made a commitment to myself, a “New Earth Year’s Resolution” of sorts, to pay attention to incorporating that “First R” into my daily life, starting with a new blog post on incorporating the First R into green parenting!
Following The Three R’s
From a consumer’s perspective our goal in following the Three R’s is to work toward both reducing our consumption and our waste. What goes in must go out, as they say, not to mention that reducing consumption also ultimately reduces energy usage and the production of environmental contaminants. A simple way to look at it is to:
- Begin with that First “R”: Reduce consumption by buying new only when necessary.
- Then follow up with the Second “R”: Reuse what you have rather than throw it away.
- And end with the Third “R”: Recycle whatever is left.
Clearly the step most difficult to follow, and therefore the one most easily forgotten, is the first “R” — Reduce. That’s probably why “The Compact” cropped up, a support group for folks committed to buy no new items for an entire year. It’s certainly possible to go without new items in America today. We have such a wealth of used and rent-able stuff surrounding us that we can meet all of our needs, food excepted, without purchasing a single newly-manufactured item. But can we meet our psychological need to spend while following that important First “R”? For most people, The Compact might be too much too soon. But that doesn’t mean you can’t make great strides to reduce your consumption and ensure that this world will still exist in all its beautiful green glory for your children and grandchildren. Try suggestions on sites like the National Institute of Environmental Heath Sciences, and if you’re a parent, read my post on 5 ways to be a better green parent. Keep in mind that asking yourself a few simple questions while shopping can set you on your way to simpler, more sustainable living:
- Could I buy this used?
- If I buy it new, how long will it last?
- Will I have to buy replacements or replacement parts too frequently?
- Is there something I already have that I could use instead?
And the big kicker:
- Do I really need this?
[Edit: I recently found another great list of questions to ask yourself when you're shopping green. Keeping those questions handy in your head or on a wallet card is really a must for reminding yourself to do the right thing. It's haaard, believe me I know. My own more recent consumer guilt story is in my post "I am human. -or- Earth Day Ate My Baby Bouncer!"]