Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, and Rot

Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, and Rot

5 R Pyramid


How the 3 Rs Became the 5 Rs

You have likely heard the slogan "Reduce, reuse, recycle," a phrase developed to help the public curb their heavy waste production. It all started in the 1950s with the large-scale production of plastic. A material that revolutionized many modern industries at the time; but also ushered in a throwaway culture of disposable single-use items. The insane amount of trash and litter also increased awareness of the resulting environmental harm. In 1970, Gary Anderson, a University of Southern California senior, designed a button with the 3 Rs slogan and 3 rotating arrows. This became what is now the universal recycling symbol to combat consumer waste. And recycling became the strategy we depended on the most to save us from the ever-increasing amount of plastic waste we were producing. 

Consider that humans have made eight billion metric tons of plastic since it was created. Nearly half of that was manufactured just after the year 2000, and this mass production rate is only accelerating. Even more disturbing, only 9% of this plastic tonnage gets recycled. Obviously, recycling as a countermeasure could never solve a problem of this magnitude. The Three Rs approach would desperately require an update to better address the enormity of the issue. And the framework of the waste management hierarchy would also need to be reprioritized.


The 5 Rs

In 2013, author and zero waste icon Bea Johnson revolutionized the 3 Rs in her book Zero Waste Home. She suggested we adopt zero waste practices that interrupt the need for recycling, and she established a new and improved set of Rs. 

Here are her quoted 5 Rs listed by order of impact. A summary below includes all the ways you can practice these guidelines and reduce waste in your life.

  • "Refuse what you do not need."
  • "Reduce what you do need."
  • "Reuse by using reusables."
  • "Recycle what you cannot refuse, reduce, or reuse."
  • "Rot (compost) the rest."


Refuse:  Start by refusing anything that quickly becomes trash and stuff you don't need. We're all conditioned to accept free stuff because it's free. Saying yes can also feel like the courteous thing to do. In truth, it can be just as polite to say no. You'll find that most freebies will eventually just become useless junk or trash anyway. Saying no to single-use items or free stuff can also help declutter your home. 

Here are some common items to refuse:

  • Disposable utensils. Bring your silverware from home, or get a travel set of cutlery.
  • Junk Mail. The USPS provides excellent information for refusing unwanted mail and removing your name from mailing lists.
  • Plastic and bioplastic straws. Bioplastic straws are theoretically compostable, but they often land in the trash because municipal composting facilities are ill-equipped to compost bioplastic. We recommend a bamboo straw instead.
  • Plastic bags. Try a reusable string bag or a market basket.
  • Turn down free handouts (like flyers, free coupons, magazines, swag bags, etc.). You can take a picture of most of these items with your phone, and swag bags are generally full of marketing material that you really don't need. Every time you take these free items, you create a demand for more. 


Reduce: We can reduce our waste by carefully considering what we need and want. This goes hand in hand with refusing. Before you buy, consider these questions to ask yourself to help reduce your waste. 

  1. Is this a quality product?
  2. Was it ethically made?
  3. What is the end of life of this product?
  4. Will I actually use it?  
  5. Could I borrow this instead?
  6. What value will this add to my life?

Create a shopping list to control your spending habits and stop impulse buys. The less you bring home, the less waste to manage. Once you decide you should buy an item, you may want to consider how long it will last. Well-made products will last longer and reduce the number of times you'll need to repurchase. Taking care of your possessions by following cleaning instructions and labels will also help preserve your items for a very long time.


Reuse: Swap disposables for reusables. The goal is to reuse what you can and keep things out of the landfill. Notice this tip is very complementary to Refusing and Reducing items. 

Here are some everyday items to replace with reusable ones.

When deciding whether to discard something and buy a new one, ask yourself if you can find a way to reuse or repair it first. Local thrift stores, Freecycle, and the Buy Nothing Project are great ways to donate gently-used items or acquire items you need. You can also check online for help to find a new home for your things. Many charitable organizations are willing to take stuff you no longer need or want. Don't forget that a library card is also a really great way to reuse books, music, and movies.


Recycle: Anything that can be recycled should be. Keep in mind that some materials like plastic only have a limited number of times that they can be recycled until the integrity of the plastic becomes diminished. This means a plastic product can never be the same thing twice. It can only be made into something of lesser quality until it can no longer be recycled. Recycle what cannot be Refused, Reduced, or Reused. 

Make sure to sort and clean your recyclables according to local regulations. Every municipality potentially has different rules on what they accept for recycling. Check out the EPA website for some general guidelines for best practices on recycling.


Rot:  It's important to keep organic material out of the landfill because it won't decompose effectively there (due to lack of aeration). Instead, it releases methane gas into the atmosphere causing climate-related issues. It is much better to use organic matter as compost, which you can use to enrich the soil and help plants grow. Look for composting equipment that works for your lifestyle and familiarize yourself with what it can break down. Hair, nails, food scraps, and yard waste are all things that might go into your compost system. 


Beyond the 5 Rs

Following these guiding principles will help you reduce your waste, but don't beat yourself up if it's too much. Just do the best you can and remember that while these measures are incredibly beneficial, they can't solve all our waste problems. The truth is, our infrastructure needs to change for our society to truly support zero-waste initiatives. It's unfair to place the burden of this issue on individual actions. Instead, this problem should be a collective one with a shared solution. Our society is based on a linear economy, where most products are designed to be disposable. We should pressure businesses, corporations, and governments to do everything possible to help create a more circular economy. Part of that pressure is showing them the demand for change. Until that happens, these guidelines will benefit you in your journey toward a zero-waste lifestyle and help protect the planet!



  1. Geyer, Roland, et al. “Production, Use, and Fate of All Plastics Ever Made.”  Science, Science Advances, 19 July 2017,
  2. Johnson, B. (2013). Zero waste home: The ultimate guide to simplifying your life. Particular Books.
  3. “‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle’ Button.” National Museum of American History, National Museum of American History,


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