The 5 Rs of a Zero Waste lifestyle
September 20, 2020

The 5 Rs of a Zero Waste lifestyle

When embarking on a less wasteful lifestyle, the 5 steps described by Bea Johnson, one the pioneers of the Zero Waste movement, are very inspirational and to be kept in mind: 

  • Refuse what we do not need

  • Reduce what we do need

  • Reuse what we already have

  • Recycle what we can't refuse, reduce and reuse

  • Rot the rest




The first R, Refuse what we do not need is about preventing waste from entering our home in the first place.
- We don't need single-use plastic bags, straws, cutlery, water bottles, or unnecessary packaging.
- Even if Covid made it challenging for some items, we can do without disposable items such as wipes, masks, gloves, cups, paper towels, napkins, cotton balls, razors...
- We don't need junk mail and promotional freebies that will go straight to the trash can or be forgotten in a drawer. It's not because something is free that we have to accept it.
- We should say no to plastic clothes because they won't last, produce a lot of micro-plastics and rapidly become waste.
- Refuse to succumb to marketing tricks that make you buy more than you need.

Refusing what we don't need requires us to say "no" and that might feel uncomfortable but like a lot of things in life, practice will help tremendously. A polite "no, thank you" will go a long way.
It is very important to refuse what we don't need because the more we are to refuse, the more the sales of these wasteful items drop and create a demand for something different and more sustainable.



Reducing what we do need is the second of the 5 Rs of Zero Waste and clearly goes against the consumer society's principles.

Reduce what we do need is about using what we already have, borrow whenever possible, buy second hand and when new is necessary, buy smart: check the composition/ingredients of the product, where it has been made, by who, always prefer quality over quantity. In a nutshell: Less is more!

When reducing what we need, we reduce our demand on non-renewable natural resources, we reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the amount of trash sent to the landfills and let's not forget our expenses!

Depending on our relationship with new stuff, trends and/or deals, the above might feel unachievable.

Here are some tips to progressively cut the cord with mass consumption:
- Unsubscribe from catalogs and marketing emails you receive in your mailbox/inbox. PaperKarma is a free easy app to stop receiving catalogs and junk mail.
- Reduce temptations by limiting your visits to stores like Target, Home Goods & co. You know you'll end up buying something, it's like having chocolate in your pantry!
- Before going shopping, make a list and stick to it
- Ask yourself a few questions: Do I really need it? Do I already have something similar? Will I use it often? Am I trying to keep up with the Joneses?
- Sell, give, donate what you don't need anymore. Declutter has many benefits and will help you think twice before buying something.
- Compare the joy and the benefits brought by an experience vs a compulsive purchase.

Last but not least, reducing what we need is also about reducing our environmental impact: eat less meat, save water, buy local and in season produce, grow your food, do full loads of laundry, air dry, save energy, use public transportation, refill, buy in bulk...

You get it, Reduce is a big shift in our mentalities but a crucial one for the future of the planet and its inhabitants.



The 3rd R identified by Bea Johnson @zerowastehome, who popularized Zero Waste Living, is #reuse.
Reuse anything that we can, repair what can be fixed, give a second life to things, repurpose instead of throwing away.

The possibilities are endless and I can't list them all but here are the ones you can start with:
- Reusable bags to do your shopping 
- Reusable produce bags for your fruits and veggies, bulk grains, cereals...
- Reusable water bottle
- Reusable cup/mug
- Reusable utensils for work lunch, take out or picnic
- Reusable cloth towels and napkins
- Reusable food wraps
- Reusable snack bags 
- Reusable rags to clean the kitchen and the floors

If you are ready to go a little bit further:
- Refill your shampoo, conditioner, shower gel, body lotion, laundry detergent, dish soap containers
- Buy second hand
- Repair electronics, shoes, mend clothes...
- Borrow, rent what you won't use on a regular basis
- Use handkerchiefs 
- Use reusable menstrual pads and/or a cup
- Use a safety razor
- Make vegetable stock with your vegetable scraps. There are many DIY recipes to use our food scraps
- Use rechargeable batteries
- Reuse pasta sauce glass containers to freeze leftover food. And any other containers to store odds and ends.

By skipping the disposables, taking care and reusing what we have, we reduce drastically the amount of waste that we produce, we limit the extraction of natural resources and save money. Bonus: we become very creative!



Once we've refused single-use plastics, reduced the things we don't really need, reused what we have, then the 4th "R" - Recycling gets pretty easy as we have already eliminated a lot of waste.

We've been made to believe that recycling is the right thing to do and the solution to our environmental problem but it is not true. Only 1/4 of our waste is recycled, more than half goes to landfills, 1/8 is incinerated and the rest, about ‪1/10‬ is composted. These are the 2017 Environmental Protection Agency's data for municipal solid waste management in the USA and this doesn't count littering.

To solve our pollution and environmental crisis, we have to take the problem to its source. The recycling or up-cycling of a product should be thought through during its design and before it goes on the market.
Until that happens, we, as consumers, are responsible for recycling right:
- Visit your local solid waste management website, learn about what can be and what cannot be recycled in your county
- Consider visiting your local recycling facilities, they often provide free classes 
- Research recycling centers in your town for material that don't go to the trash nor the recycling bin (batteries, corks, computer equipment, tires...)
- And don't bag your recyclables!


Last but not least the last 5 Rs of Zero Waste is Rot! Understand compost.

40% of the food in the US is thrown away, ending up in landfills and producing methane. You might wonder why it doesn't decompose and return to the soil. It's because once trapped under tons of trash, organic material lacks oxygen to properly biodegrade.

Our food scraps represent about ⅓ of our waste. It's huge when we know that so many people are suffering from hunger (more than 37 millions in the USA) and we think about how much land, water, energy and time is required to grow food. 
But food waste doesn't have to go to the landfill, it can become a nutritious soil for our garden (or our local farmer's) if we compost it.

There are many compost options available:
- Worm bin: small container full of worms that process food waste through their organisms, if you see what I mean :)
- Bokashi: Japanese term for "fermented organic matter," a specialized system in which waste, including meat and dairy, breaks down without oxygen to produce a compost “tea” and a small amount of organic waste to be buried. 
- Compost pile: easiest of all if you have an outdoor space
- Tumbler: same as a compost pile except the compost is inside a bin suspended off the ground.
- Trench method: if you have a yard, dig a 12 inches deep trench or hole, put your compost and bury it with the soil you dug out of the trench or hole. That's it.

If you don't feel like starting your own compost, your city might offer that service or you can use the app @ShareWaste to find someone who will put your 
food scrap to good use.

Here in Charlotte, Crown Town Compost will gladly provide you with a bucket to fill up with fruits and vegetables scraps, corn cob, banana peel, grass clippings, used paper napkins, towels, tissues, plates, egg shells, nuts and grains, tea bags/leaves, coffee grinds...They can come to you or you can come drop off your bucket @southendmarket on Saturday mornings!

Note that composting is great but reducing food waste by planning ahead is even more important.

Living a less wasteful lifestyle is a journey: don't try to apply the 5 Rs all at the same time, start with something small that you can achieve and add on to it progressively. Producing zero waste is quite impossible in the world we live in but being conscious of the consequences of our consumption choices is a huge step into the right direction.