The 3 ‘R’s are a set of principles that can help individuals and organizations reduce their impacts on the environment. Adhering to these principles across all sectors is essential to transition our societies into more sustainable ones.
“Reduce” refers to the reduction of our energy and material demands. For companies, this can mean producing higher quality items that can be used for longer. It can also mean reducing the amount of packaging needed for a specific product, or even designing the packaging in such a way that it can be reused or recycled. That’s called reducing by design.
For individuals, reducing means reducing consumption, above all else. Not purchasing a product helps avoid its production, use, and disposal impacts. Although reducing consumption is effective at the individual scale, it would require powerful social movements to make any difference at the larger scale.
Fortunately, reducing consumption doesn’t mean that individuals must stop purchasing products completely. It’s unrealistic to expect individuals to stop buying smartphones, clothing, and other products. That’s especially true for essential products that have significant environmental impacts, like food.
To reduce impacts when buying these types of products, individuals can aim for the most sustainable alternatives. And a good way to do that is by purchasing reusable products.
Reusing stuff that has already been produced and used is essential to reduce further energy and material demand upstream.
Businesses are often better positioned to facilitate reuse since they have the reach to implement large scale reuse programs. They also have the resources to repair any of their slightly damaged products before putting them back on the market – and the authority to assure customers that the reused product is up to the company’s standards.
For individuals, one challenge will be changing the stigma around used products. Otherwise, there will be little incentive for businesses to implement large scale reuse programs. Numerous reuse systems have been growing in popularity in recent years, suggesting that individuals are warming up to the idea of reuse.
Purchasing second-hand products is almost always a more sustainable decision than buying new. However, some exceptions exist for older products that are far more wasteful than newer ones, like very old cars, toilets, or lightbulbs.
Recycling valuable materials found in waste streams is essential to reduce production and disposal impacts. Recycling is without a doubt the most integrated R in our societies, since it’s the only one that doesn’t limit consumption. Reducing and reusing limits purchases of new products, so businesses often focus on recycling instead.
Recycling will play a pivotal role as our societies transition into more sustainable ones, since recycled products use less energy than products made from scratch. Additionally, recycling avoids further depletion of natural resources, which will be important for finite materials that are in high-demand, like metals.
In an ideal world, recycling would allow the infinite use of materials until the end of time, effectively setting up a circular economy. Unfortunately, recycling has numerous challenges to overcome before circular economies can even be conceived:
- 100% recycling efficiency is unrealistic due to waste collection issues, complex waste sorting, lost material value, subpar recycling efficiencies, and limited recycling durability.
- 100% recycling efficiency is a target for recyclable materials. Unfortunately, modern products use lots of non-recyclable materials that don’t contribute to a circular economy.
- 100% recycling efficiency doesn’t mean a circular economy is reached. Another important objective is reducing demand to ensure that the amount of materials used to make new products does not increase over time.
- 100% recycling efficiency will remain unprofitable without the political will to set up a circular economy, as demonstrated by plastic waste’s historical recycling rate of 9%. Greater incentives to recycle plastics would have increased recovery.
Implementing the 3 Rs simultaneously at all scales will help economies get as circular as possible. On top of reducing waste, the 3 Rs can lead to lower resource extraction, energy consumption, and GHG emissions.