The hierarchy of the three Rs.

Today when I watched Waste Deep I was reminded again that many people are still unaware of the true function of the three R’s of sustainability: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. The three Rs don’t just suggest three ways of being more sustainable. It is a hierarchical model for leading a greener existence.



Often the first thing people who are trying to reduce their waste will notice is that their recycling bin is now much fuller than their rubbish bin. While this is a really great start, the reduction in waste starts with just that – reduction!

Part of the reason our family buys nothing new is because we believe that all of the things we need in this world have already been made, purchased, in most cases used and have plenty of life left in them for a new life with us. If we are unable to buy something second hand we will usually not buy it at all. This means that we are instantly reducing our impact on the earth. Every new item that is purchased is created by using a variety of resources from production of initial materials and assembly of the product to packing, shipping and promotion. I’m not just talking about clothing and stuff here. I’m also talking about food. If we buy processed food (and try as I might not to, there is a whole pile of it in my pantry right now) there is often a hefty drain on resources before those items even hit the shelves.

So, what’s a better choice?

Reduce the processed food you buy and reduce the amount of food you buy overall. Really think about the type of packaging on your food – can it be composted or returned to nature? Is it plastic that can be recycled? Or is it foil or styrofoam that is much harder to dispose of? Think about this for all the stuff you buy.

Try and find a reuse for items, even recyclable ones, first. Glass jars have a bajillion uses. I give mine to my Dad for jams, sauces and pickles (and often get them back filled with goodies). I have a friend who offers her jars up in bulk lots for free on classified sites. Some people use them for storing collections (I can’t speak from experience because I do not have a large collection of vintage buttons sorted into colour lots in glass jars on my sewing shelves). You can use a glass jar for transporting soup, or as a vase. Tins, like jars, can also be used as a variety of receptacles. One of my favourite reuses for tins was seen in a cafe recently. They had used a variety of pretty tomato tins for utensils on the tables. I actually took a photo of this to share with you, but can I find it now? No, sir.

Glass and tin are two things that actually recycle well. They tend to retain their quality through recycling processes over and again . What’s really challenging and helpful is when you find ways to reuse plastic products, which reduce in quality every time they are recycled. I always try and find second, third and fourth uses for the least recyclable plastics, such as margarine and yoghurt containers. These are of such low quality by the time they’re produced, due to being made from a variety of recycled plastics melted together, that they can only really be recycled into plastic lumber which is in limited demand.

The final step in the three RRRs of sustainable practices, is recycle. This is certainly a better option than sending your goods to landfill. People often forget that recycling is a process which involves the use of transport and energy, as well as large amounts of other resources such as water. Recycling is what prevents much of our resources from going to landfill, but the recycling plant is the last step before landfill.

I’d love to see many more people putting many more steps between purchase and disposal. 

Mama xo


6 thoughts on “The hierarchy of the three Rs.

  1. My thoughts are that there are five Rs, not 3. Refuse, reduce, re-use, repair, recycle, so a couple of extra steps to include. Your “nothing new” philosophy is the perfect refusal! And repair (or repurpose) you didn’t mention as such, but no doubt you do this too! I’m totally with you, I’d love more people to think more about what they buy and the end life of the product.

    • Ooh I love the two new Rs! Refuse and repair is definitely a part of what we do. Thanks for your comment, Lindsay. I hope to see a day in the future where there is little reason to have giant shopping centres.

  2. Refuse has become a huge one in my house. We refuse all bags when shopping, free balloons, pens, crappy plastic toys, showbags for of rubbish etc, junk mail etc, etc, etc. My general rule is if it’s going for free then it’s rarely needed (with the exception of freecycle, which is completely different). This is hard to explain to a two and four year old who want every piece of free crap they can lay their hands on, but it’s important to be firm and consistent. We don’t NEED it and it is a terrible waste of resources that will very quickly find their way to the rubbish.

    I also like re-home, for anything that might be good for someone else but not used by you. I always think if you can give away that unused linen, clothes, kitchenware of whatever, it stops someone else having to buy it new as well as freeing up space in your house.

    Oh and by the way, having gone back through your entire archive, I’ve started on a major decluttering. I sold all my maternity clothes on ebay, gave away an old phone, some bed sheets, baby cot bedding, rubber mats etc etc on freecycle and now have my spare room completely clear of all junk. Next up is my wardrobe and the mountains of baby clothes I have stored in space bags in every available cupboard/under bed space. And in further inspiration I just saved myself a fortune and bought my daughter a second hand but barely used bike for her birthday. Clearly your blog has had an effect on my thinking recently – it’s good to get a reminder of these things when you slip into old habits, so thanks!

    • Yes! Re-home is an important addition. I agree whole-heartedly about saving someone else from having to buy something new. Every unused thing in our homes is a resource for someone, somewhere if we can find the right match!
      Yay for your decluttering! I’m so glad you’ve felt inspired. We are starting the Minimalist Game tomorrow, where each day in April you get rid of the number of things as the number in the date. Let’s see how we go!
      Thank you for your lovely link ups in your recent post. I love to hear that things we are doing are resonating with others. It also reminds us to keep up with our new life style, sometimes we get slack (like doing the dishes together each night!).

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