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Why there's more than 3 Rs in sustainability

The 3 Rs have been around for a long time now: reduce, reuse, recycle. Jack Johnson even wrote a song about them.

But there is a strong case to be made that, in this case, Jack was wrong: 3 isn't necessarily the magic number when it comes to the Rs of sustainable living.

The problem is that, from Government legislation to individual behaviour, emphasis has always defaulted to the third of these Rs: recycle. But though recycling has its place, alone it has never and could never be the answer to delivering a more sustainable future.

Not just because many (still) don't know how to recycle properly (or what is even recyclable in the first place). Nor is it because what we recycle is often just shipped elsewhere, simply making it someone else's problem to solve.

The issue is more fundamental unfortunately. Positioning recycling as the only game in town, and by implication the cure to all ills, has shifted attention from what is really required for a greener, cleaner tomorrow. The third R has become a conscience-salving get out clause ("but we recycle") that allows business as usual to continue. Something that excuses us, both individually and collectively, from the more challenging but much more effective and ultimately essential changes in behaviour that a sustainable lifestyle requires.

Because once the recycling stage has been reached, you're already at the end of a slippery slope...with a cliff fast approaching . You've gone from production through consumption, and are only one step from landfill or pollution (particularly when a lot of what we buy still isn't recyclable in the first place). So, at best, this can only ever make recycling the final piece of the jigsaw, mopping up what can't be sustainably addressed in other ways.

Which is why we need to shift the spotlight to the other Rs, and why people have added a few more for good measure along the way. Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Repair, Repurpose, Recycle. 6 Rs may not scan so well in a song, but as a guide to sustainable living they will help us secure a (more positive) future for our planet and everything on it.

The 6 Rs of sustainable living: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Repair, Repurpose, Recycle
The 6 Rs of sustainable living: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Repair, Repurpose, Recycle


Arguably the most important R is to just say no. If the experience of Covid lockdown has taught us anything it's that we can go without. There are many things we buy which we simply don't need. That extra pair of shoes, the supersize offer, the tech upgrade, that 'thing' you just want, the impulse purchase. The fact it's being offered isn't a reason to buy. Because the single most sustainable change we can make to our behaviour is to live a simpler life. To recognise that enough can be enough.


If you are going to buy, don't buy so much. Particularly in more 'developed' nations, we eat more than we need, we own more than is necessary, and we use more energy than is required. So if you are unable to refuse, than try to reduce. Downsize, go small, own fewer, consume less (meat in particular), don't get one free. It's all a matter of choice. And it doesn't just apply to things. Think about travel. Reduction here can have a big impact on personal sustainability. Try walking or cycling instead of driving. And cut down on flying: everything else you do in a year to reduce your carbon footprint can be undone by one flight. So ask the question: how many overseas trips do I need in a year? It's time we (again) saw foreign holidays as a luxury and a treat, not an everyday necessity and basic human right.


Single use plastics are the obvious example here, and we have seen some positive behaviour change in this area. And renewable energy sources are in the ascendancy at long last (although this switch shouldn't become an excuse to use more: less is still better, however generated). But the same principle can be applied in all aspects of life. Are those clothes really finished because they're so last season? Do you actually need a phone upgrade each year when the one you have works perfectly well. What could you be doing with those leftovers that doesn't add to the food waste mountain (and saves you money)? An important consideration here is buying to last, rather than to throw away. Disposable culture may seem cheap up front, but the costs mount over time. Which is why investing in quality that lasts, that allows continued use, is always worth it even if that means saving first. Learn to embrace delayed gratification.


If it's broken, chuck it and buy new. That's been one of the engines of capitalist economies since forever. But have you ever asked yourself whether buying new is necessary? Could you actually mend what's broken (or find something broken and mend it)? The answer to 'how' is usually only a Google search away. And you might be surprised how simple and how fulfilling this can be. It's one of my greatest personal revelations of the last 10 years: discovering that it's actually quite easy to mend household appliances. My goto for advice on this: eSpares.


If you can't reuse or repair, if something has genuinely gone beyond it's useful life, can you repurpose into a new role? The concept of upcycling has been around for some time. Generally it's been seen as an artistic movement: taking junk and getting creative with it. Which is great if that's your thing. But repurposing and upcycling can be much more straightforward: when an item no longer meets it's original purpose, simply ask what else it could be used for. Turn that packing crate into a storage box...or made a table. Could that old watering can become a flower planter? There are many possibilities that just need a little bit of imagination.


Which brings us to the R we all know about, and that most of us will do to some degree: recycling. But if the 5 previous Rs have played out in our lives (particularly if they extend the life of things which aren't currently recyclable), the amount we need to recycle or, worse still, send to landfill, will be much, much less. Also, when thinking recycling, remember this isn't just about glass, plastic and paper. And that the things we no longer want or need don't have to end up at the dump. Give them to a charity shop, or offer them free on the likes of Gumtree. That's recycling too. Because what has no value to us may have value to others.

So sing along if you know the words: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Repair, Repurpose, Recycle. And let's all try to live more sustainably for a better future.

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