The 3 ‘R’s are the general rules we need to follow to reduce our impacts on the environment, at any scale. We’ll see in other sections that these rules are central pillars to lowering consumption across all sectors of our societies.
This is the most important of the 3 Rs. Reducing our energy consumption and dependence on material objects directly reduces our environmental impacts. For companies, this means producing higher quality items that can be used for longer. As we’ll see later in this section, higher quality products can encourage reuse. The first R 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. That is, if companies don’t wastefully overproduce by manufacturing products that go straight from the store to the landfill. Although not purchasing a product is quite effective at the individual scale, it takes considerable social movements to boycott companies and make any difference at the larger scale.
Nonetheless, reducing our demand will be crucial to lower our impacts. However, this doesn’t mean that we have to stop purchasing products completely, as it would be unrealistic to expect everyone to stop buying smartphones, clothing, and more. That’s especially true for essential products that have significant environmental impacts, like food.
To reduce our impacts when buying these types of products, we can simply aim for the most sustainable alternatives– since buying nothing isn’t always an option. And a good way to do that is by purchasing reusable products.
In an ideal world, we would only rely on reducing production and its impacts. However, in this one, we’ll need to reuse stuff that has already been produced and used, to avoid further production upstream.
It’s important to note that companies [through goodwill or government policies] can use the second R the best, 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, changing the stigma around buying used products will be important. If we’re not on board with the whole reuse concept, then there’s really no point in setting up large scale reuse programs. Luckily, numerous reuse systems have been growing in popularity in recent years [e.g. for clothing] and have shown that individuals are ready to buy used.
There are essentially 2 ways for individuals to be part of reuse systems. One option is purchasing items that were designed for multiple uses. For example, a durable T-shirt that can be worn for many uses before breaking down. For the environment and your wallet, items like these are typically more expensive up-front, but are almost always cheaper in the long term.
The second scenario is to reuse objects that weren’t necessarily designed for multiple uses. By reusing plastic bags we already own, or buying second-hand items like smartphones or clothing, we can effectively reduce production upstream and save a bit of cash. While it’s true that certain reused items can deteriorate and need repair from time to time, the environmental benefits resulting from their reuse almost always end up outweighing the drawbacks. Note that some exceptions exist for older products that are far more wasteful than newer ones, like very old cars, toilets, or lightbulbs.
We all know this one, right? Recycling is without a doubt the most integrated R in our societies. This might be because it’s the only R that doesn’t reduce the amount of stuff we buy. Reducing and reusing limits our purchases, and unsurprisingly companies aren’t big fans of that. On the other hand, recycling can increase profits for companies by avoiding more resource exploitation.
Currently, public recycling remains unprofitable for many materials in many countries, but that can change with better waste management systems and policies.
In any case, it is certain that recycling will have to play a pivotal role in transitioning our societies into more sustainable ones, since recycled products can be made using much less energy than products made from scratch – all the while reducing waste. Additionally, as we’ve seen for metals, resource extraction creates significant local pollution and depletes finite resources – 2 things that can be avoided thanks to recycling.
With that in mind, what if we could instead recycle all components, thus creating a self-sufficient loop until the end of time? A fantastic idea, but there are some inconvenient truths and a lot of progress to be made:
- Recycling is a complicated process that involves lots of sorting. The trash separation we’re encouraged to do in our homes is only the first step of sorting. Since we can’t ensure that all individuals respect their local recycling guidelines, recycling plants require even more sorting to avoid contaminating different types of recyclables. In addition, there are loads of different types of metals, plastics, and even glass – all recycled differently and separated as to not contaminate each other. All these sorting requirements create a lot of nit-picky work, which is done by both recycling plant workers and energy-consuming machines.
- Even if we were to get our triage perfect, we create many non-recyclable materials such as some metal alloys and plastics. Some of these materials can be recycled as a chunk of material [like a brick], but not while keeping all their interesting properties. That’s because we’re not very good at transforming the shape or size of many of these man-made materials without altering their carefully engineered structure – or it’s far too costly to do so. We also have trouble restoring any damage caused to a material during use [e.g. batteries that ‘eat’ themselves during use].
- Even if we were able to triage and recycle all materials, we wouldn’t be able to stop extracting resources completely. Our recycling efficiency is incredibly variable depending on the material. For example, we have a great recycling efficiency for lead – because we invested a lot in lead recycling after learning how toxic it is when dumped in the environment. Alas, most materials don’t have that high of a recycling efficiency [for now], as demonstrated by plastic waste – of which only 9% has ever been recycled [EU and China have been getting better, not the US].
- A self-sufficient cycle has one fundamental law: production can’t exceed waste. Even if all the recycling problems stated above didn’t exist, we’re still in a world of increasing material demand. As our demography and quality of life standards continue to rise, our consumption continues to increase. This is another reason why recycling cannot replace the first 2 Rs, all 3 must be employed simultaneously.
- Recycling guidelines vary drastically between different regions of the world. This makes it incredibly hard for individuals to figure out which recyclables are accepted by their local recycling plant, and which should be thrown out as ‘regular’ trash. Online tools have been developed by certain regions to address this issue, but most individuals aren’t even aware that the tools exist.
- We also can’t recycle everything indefinitely, as many materials will break down after a certain number of uses. The good news is that we’re evolving away from one-and-done recycling – as materials that could previously only be recycled once can now be recycled multiple times [e.g. plastics, paper, etc…].
- Not everything is collected. Recycling for many products just isn’t possible or profitable. For example, it’s estimated that there are up to 70 chemical elements in an average smartphone, including hard-to-recycle metal alloys. It’s also estimated that phones and other electronics can contain up to 16 of the 17 types of rare earth metals. Although these metals are certainly valuable, they’re present in such small amounts that companies often deem them ‘unworthy’ of collection.
We can’t reach a 100% circular economy. However, employing the 3 Rs simultaneously at all scales can help us get as close as possible. On top of reducing waste, this will help us avoid unnecessary resource extraction and energy consumption.