Following the 5 'R's of Sustainability
As consumers and individuals, we often feel that there is little we can personally do to change the world for the better. The problems we face globally can be so large and overwhelming that we become paralysed. We forget that we all have the power to improve things and no one is too small or insignificant to make a difference.
Every journey begins with a single step, and the route to sustainability is no different. The key is to identify the small things we can do (or not do) to reduce our impact on our planet and on other people. It is not always easy, however, to work out what exactly we can do. Thinking about five simple words can help us work out whether we are moving in the right direction.
A great place to begin when you are starting out towards a more eco-friendly way of life is with the five 'R's:
Let's take a look at each of these five words in a little more depth. By doing so, we can determine the small steps we can take towards a better way of life.
The first stage in moving towards a zero-waste lifestyle involves withdrawing our support for damaging systems, and not accepting items that we do not need, or which will pose a waste problem at the end of their useful lives.
For example, we can do our part and move in the right direction by:
- Refusing to buy food or other items in plastic/ non-recyclable packaging wherever possible.
- Opting for natural, organic, local produce (even growing our own where possible) and refusing heavily processed and packaged foods.
- Choosing natural, biodegradable options rather than synthetic/plastic/ composite items when it comes to clothing, household goods, etc..
- Opting not to buy any synthetic materials that are not recycled (where plastic/ synthetic materials are required).
- Refusing plastic straws, cutlery, plastic bags, and other disposable plastic items when out and about.
- Opting for online banking etc. rather than receiving paper mail, and reducing junk mail wherever possible.
It is important to remember that by refusing items, we can affect change. The power of the consumer can encourage companies to reduce/ improve their packaging, for example. Removing your support for damaging systems can help to curtail wasteful practices.
Certain items, such as re-useable, natural fabric shopping bags, reusable drinks bottles and reusable (non-plastic) picnic/ food containers can make it easier for us to refuse damaging items and prevent waste.
The next thing to do is to consider how, in general, you might be able to reduce the amount that you purchase and consume. Before buying anything new at all it is very important to consider whether or not you really need that item at all. As well as thinking carefully, other steps that you could take to reduce consumption might include:
- Growing at least some of your own food.
- Making your own cleaning and beauty products, rather than buying endless toiletries and cleaning products in plastic bottles.
- Learn practical skills that allow you to create things yourself from scratch, rather than buying new things. For example, gardening, cooking, preserving, sewing, knitting, woodwork, metalwork etc..
- Prioritizing quality over quantity (and choosing long-lasting, durable items for your home).
The rest of the 'r's outlined below will also help you reduce, in general, the amount that you consume and the quantity of stuff that comes into your household.
Remember, the less you bring into your home in the first place, the less likely you are to generate waste. The less waste you generate, the less negative impact you will have on the world around you.
Reuse is, perhaps, the most important element in moving towards a more sustainable lifestyle. First of all, it involves using and reusing any items that we do buy for as long as possible – extending their useful lives for as long as we can. It can also involve:
- Upcycling/ reusing food packing in your home and garden.
- Restoring/ upcycling old furniture and other household belongings to give them a new lease of life.
- Choosing second-hand items rather than new ones – for example, second-hand clothing. And swapping or donating our own clothing and other items that we no longer want or need.
- Reusing old fabrics/ clothing to make new clothing or soft furnishings, or, when they are no longer suitable for this, making scraps useful again by, for example, using them as cleaning rags.
- Choosing and using reclaimed materials to build and finish homes.
What we can reuse, we can keep out of the waste stream, so these things will not be placing a burden on the environment, and could even help you to go greener in other ways.
Another important element in living a zero-waste lifestyle is making sure that we do not fall into the trap of disposing of something that is broken before we make an attempt to fix it. Of course, there will always be things that cannot easily be fixed by an amateur. Electronics are one obvious example.
There are, however, plenty of things that end up in landfills each year that could easily have been repaired. A mentioned above, old items can be swapped or sold, or turned into something new. But sometimes keeping something from becoming waste is as simple as making a small repair. Moving towards a sustainable lifestyle is sometimes about learning some new skills that will allow you to keep things going for longer.
Anything that we cannot refuse, reduce, reuse, or repair, we should be able to recycle. Recycling alone cannot solve the planet's waste problem. First off, there are plenty of things that cannot be, or are not usually commercially recycled. It is not enough to simply sort our recycling and leave it by the kerb. If we really want to move to a zero-waste lifestyle, we have to pay more attention to what comes into our homes in the first place, rather than just what leaves it and where it goes.
Unfortunately, commercial recycling can, itself, be a rather wasteful process. It can require large amounts of energy and sometimes water. With plastic, it cannot usually be done indefinitely. Once it has been recycled and downgraded once or twice, most plastic will still end up as a waste problem. While recycling can be part of the solution to the global waste crisis, it is most definitely only a small part of the puzzle.
That said, cleaning, sorting and recycling waste that you cannot refuse, reduce, reuse or repair out of existence will also be important in moving to a sustainable lifestyle. In addition to taking advantage of commercial/ community recycling schemes in your area, it is also important to recycle at home.
The most important form or recycling you can do at home is composting, which involves turning kitchen scraps, paper, card and organic matter from your garden into a valuable material that will allow you to return nutrients to the soil and complete the natural cycles. You might also make your own recycled paper using scraps of paper and card. However, you may also be able to recycle at home in other ways.
Following the Five 'R's
Following the five 'R's of sustainability is easy. But it is not essential to get it all sorted overnight. Like any company trying to move towards sustainability, as an individual, you will also be following a process. Real and lasting change does not happen overnight.
But by thinking about the five 'R's, you can gradually take small and simple steps to change your life for the better. You can move away from damaging systems and towards a brighter, greener future.
Many people begin their journey toward sustainability by looking at recycling. But recycling is only ever part of the picture. It is only one of the five 'R's. It is only when we follow all five together that we can really work our way out of the mess we are in and move towards a solution that works for the people and the planet.