The ‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle’ Waste Hierarchy

If you have heard of something called the “waste hierarchy,” then you may be wondering what that means. It is the order of priority of actions to be taken to reduce the amount of waste generated and to improve overall waste management processes and programs. The waste hierarchy consists of 3 R’s as follows:

  • Reduce
  • Reuse
  • Recycle 

Commonly called the “three R’s” of waste management, this waste hierarchy is the guidance suggested for creating a sustainable life. You might be wondering how you can incorporate these principles into your daily life.

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Relax!

They are not that hard to implement. All you need is to bring a small change in your daily lifestyle to reduce waste so that less amount of it goes to the landfill that can reduce your carbon footprint.

It makes a big difference to recycle. It makes a big difference to use recycled products. It makes a big difference to reuse things, to not use the paper cup – and each time you do, that’s a victory.

~ Emily Deschanel

As per Missouri Department of Natural Resources,

The three R’s – reduce, reuse and recycle – all help to cut down on the amount of waste we throw away. They conserve natural resources, landfill space and energy. Plus, the three R’s save land and money that communities must use to dispose of waste in landfills. Siting a new landfill has become difficult and more expensive due to environmental regulations and public opposition.

By refusing to buy items that you don’t need, reusing items more than once and disposing the items that are no longer in use at appropriate recycling centers, you can contribute towards a healthier planet.

The First ‘R’ – Reduce

The concept of reducing what is produced and what is consumed is essential to the waste hierarchy. The logic behind it is simple to understand – if there is less waste, then there is less to recycle or reuse.

The process of ‘reduce’ begins with an examination of what you are using, and what it is used for. There are three simple steps to assessing the reduction value of an item or process –

Step 1: Is there something else that can be used for this purpose? 

Using multi-use items is essential to beginning reduction. One example would be a coffeepot and a cappuccino maker. Both of them distinctly do different things, but you can buy a coffeepot that has a steaming attachment on it so it can do both.

The purchase of one item means that you don’t use two. It reduces the amount of production and the amount of waste packaging material that will be generated.

Step 2: Is this something that needs to be done?

A lot of our waste material comes from items that are considered to be “disposable.” Not in the sense that you use something once and then throw it away, that can actually be a part of environmental responsibility when you are working with medical items – disposable in this sense means whether or not what the item allows you to do has any real meaning or purpose.

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Step 3: Is the item a part of something that you need to do or want to do in your life? 

There is a limit to what you need to be prepared for in life. Chances are you won’t need a car that is equipped to handle a sandstorm in the desert.

Buying one encourages production, wastes your resources and creates more generative waste than you can imagine. Always make sure that what you consume, or keep in your life as preparation – matches the reality of potential opportunity in your life.

Here are some of the things you can do to reduce waste:

  1. Print on both sides of the paper to reduce paper wastage.
  2. Use electronic mail to reach out to people instead of sending paper mail.
  3. Remove your name from the mailing lists that you no longer want to receive.
  4. Use cloth napkins instead of paper napkins.
  5. Avoid using disposable plates, spoons, glass, cups and napkins. They add to the problem and result in a large amount of waste.
  6. Avoid buying items that are over-packaged with foil, paper, and plastic. This excess packaging goes to waste.
  7. Buy durable goods that have an extended warranty. They generally run longer and save landfill space.
  8. Use refillable pens instead of buying too many.
  9. Purchase multi-tasking products that perform different kinds of jobs in one.
  10. If something doesn’t have a valid purpose or real use anymore, then it adds to your waste. If you’re not using any item for a long time, it’s time to put it away.

Number 3 deals with the problems created by living with a culture of consumerism. This type of consumption-driven culture also makes fulfilling the second “R” difficult, but it is getting easier to do.

The Second ‘R’ – Reuse

You may have a box of things you keep that are broken or that you don’t have a use for that you hang on to in-case you find another use for them; or you may find bargains on old furniture or go trash picking and get things that you can refinish – in either case you are working towards reusing the item. Learning to reuse items, or repurpose them for use different from what they are intended for is essential in the waste hierarchy.

One of the best examples of how this is being done today is the modular construction of homes and office buildings that are being created out of discarded shipping containers.

These large, semi-truck sized metal containers represent a huge waste problem. Repurposing them as homes and offices saves them from landfills and doesn’t require the additional expenditure of natural resources to meltdown and reconfigure the metals used to create them.

You may either reuse those items for your own use or donate so that others can use them.

Reuse below items:

  1. Old jars and pots: Old jars and pots can be used to store items in the kitchen. They can also be used to store loose items together, such as computer wires.
  2. Tyres: Old tyres can either be sent to the recycling station or can be used to make tyre-swing.
  3. Used wood: Used wood can be used as firewood or can be used as woodcraft.
  4. Newspaper: Old newspapers can be used to pack items when you’re planning to move to another home or store old items.
  5. Envelopes: Old and waste envelopes can be used by children to make short notes.
  6. Waste paper: Waste paper can be used to make notes and sketches and can be sent to the recycling center when you don’t need them anymore.
  7. Old jeans or t-shirts or any clothes: These can be turned into bags or tote-bags with the help of tutorials available on the internet. At least old clothes can become cleaning rags.
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  1. Old books: Your old books can be used by poor children or can be donated to public libraries.
  2. Old clothes: Your unwanted clothes can be used by street children or can be donated to charity institutions.
  3. Old electric equipment: Old electric equipment can be donated to schools or NGO’s so that they can use them.
  4. Rechargeable batteries: Rechargeable batteries can be used again and again and help to reduce unnecessary wastage as opposed to regular batteries.
  5. Build your own compost bin: Use the compost bin to put many waste items like used tea bags, tea leaves and grains, fruit peels, etc. The waste then degrades and turns into compost that helps your plants grow and shine.
  6. Be creative: Apply DIY on old clothes, bottles, jars, pots, vases, or anything else to convert them into other utilities and use further.
  7. Repair damaged items: Items, when repaired, can be used again without buying replacements.
  8. Second-hand stores: Visit second-hand stores and purchase second-hand goods. Second-hand stores and garage sales can offer usable items in better condition and will save you some money in the process than buying new ones.
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The Third ‘R’ – Recycling

The last stage of the waste hierarchy is to recycle. To recycle something means that it will be transformed again into a raw material that can be shaped into a new item. However, there are very few materials on the earth that cannot be recycled.

One of the issues bothering communities that want to become more involved with a recycling effort is that while the relying collection and sorting process may be affordable to implement, there still has to be a facility to receive and transform the discarded waste into a raw material to produce new products. 

More progress is being made toward uniting recycling plants with industries that can process the waste material through agreements and incentive credits.

One needs to learn as to what products can be recycled and what they cannot. By carefully choosing the products that can be recycled, it can be the first step towards efficient recycling.

  1. Buy products from the market that are made up of recycled materials i.e., the product should be environment friendly.
  2. All products are recyclable such as some plastics. There is usually a recycling symbol on the bottom of products to know whether or not it is recyclable.
  3. Buy products that can be recycled like paper, glass, aluminum, plastic, etc. used in the house, school or office. Aluminum can be recycled multiple times.
  4. Invent new ways to recycle different items. However, recyclables need to be gathered systematically and separated from the rest of the trash, ensuring a continuous supply for the recycling process.
  5. Avoid buying hazardous materials that could pose difficulty for you to recycle. Buy non-toxic products whenever possible.
  6. Buy products that have been made from recycled materials.
  7. Using recycled products is as important as recycling items. Recycling can become economically viable only when the recycled products are given significance and put to use.
  8. Use recycled paper for printing or making paper handicrafts.
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Benefits of the ‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle’ Waste Hierarchy

  • Since there will be a significant reduction in the amount of waste thrown into the environment, the chances of spreading toxins also decrease. It automatically reduces the levels of greenhouse gas emissions and pollution.
  • The Waste Hierarchy eliminates the practice of improper waste disposal, i.e., burning waste and trash haphazardly in an uncontrolled manner. Rather it enables us to manage waste in an eco-friendly manner lessening the risk of damage to the environment.
  • The primary objective of 3R principle is to lessen the use of newer resources and energy, making more efficient use of resources. It promotes resource efficiency by using the already available resources that are used multiple times, reprocessed, or entirely reduced. 
  • It contributes to more sustainable energy consumption as the resources available on hand are used, and excessive consumption is cut down. It promotes the sustainability of not only energy and resources but also the environment.
  • It encourages the development of green technology that is ways to create cleaner, safer means of waste disposal while reducing the impact on the environment and all habitats.
  • It helps increase the use of renewable energy sources like solar, wind, geothermal, etc. as well.
  • The 3Rs conserve energy and resources and generate jobs in resource management and boost the economy.

Shift from 3Rs to 4Rs

The Fourth ‘R’ – Recover

Another ‘R’ added to the already known 3Rs waste hierarchy and makes it 4Rs. That fourth ‘R’ is recovering. The 4Rs solutions often come out as a result of industry benchmarking or technological breakthroughs in more innovative companies.

After applying 3Rs, it may be possible to recover materials or energy out of the waste like electricity, heat, fuel and compost through thermal and biological means, which cannot be reduced, reused or recycled. This can be done by:

  • Sending treated wastes to a landfill where they will biodegrade away to rejuvenate the land again.
  • Solid wastes are burned at high temperatures in the incineration method and converted into residue and gaseous products. 
  • Non-recyclable waste is converted into usable heat, electricity, or fuel through varying processes and then becomes a renewable source of energy. Waste to Energy (WtE) helps lessen the need for fossil fuels and reduces emissions of carbon.
  • Composting, which is a natural biodegradable process, turns organic wastes into nutrient-rich food for plants. It is a slow process, but one of the best ways to turn unsafe organic products into safe compost.
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