Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rot

When faced with waste, we've traditionally had three choices; reduce, reuse or recycle, right? Well, yes, but that's not all. Bea Johnson, the mother of the zero waste lifestyle movement, actually coined five 'R's, not three. The first and last are important, and by missing these, we're missing the point of the message. 

Refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle, rot.

That's better. I don't know about you, but when I saw the full piece, it was a lightbulb moment for me, That first step especially. It made sense.

Refuse: The first and most important step we can take towards zero waste is somehow the simplest and most difficult. Say no. Refuse a single-use bag or straw, bring your own cup or bottle instead of taking a disposable one. Choose an online store that doesn't deliver your goods in layers of unnecessary packaging. Take the loose apples instead of the bagged ones. Opt out of mailing lists, use online catalogues instead of printed ones. Buy your (palm oil free) peanut butter in a glass jar instead of plastic, take the soda in the aluminium can, not the plastic bottle. 

Yet, often, when faced with a checkout assistant or server, we forget. Or, we feel self-conscious and don't say anything. It's getting easier, though. Most supermarkets don't automatically ask if you want a bag now, you have to ask. Likewise, takeaway establishments tend to ask if you need cutlery, and coffee shops offer a discount if you bring a cup. One tip is to ask upfront for no straw/napkin/bag/cup/cutlery/etc to get the request out of the way. You might be asked again (it's drummed into some sections of retail to offer and becomes a habit) but more often than not, that initial refusal will stick.

Reduce: As with Refuse, Reduce works on the principle that it's better to have less waste than to worry about how to dispose of it. I've said it before, the zero waste movement and minimalism are intertwined. The principles are simple; buy less.

My first steps into a low waste life began when I was decluttering last year and I saw just how much stuff I had. Useless items that I had accumulated over the years, extra things I purchased because I couldn't find the original one, fads I bought into. I filled boxes and bags of clothes I never wore, books I was unlikely to read again and trinkets and gifts I hadn't used. I sold some, gave some away and recycled what was left. It was incredibly freeing. I'm never going back to my borderline-hoarder days.

Reducing means only buying what we need. Taking a shopping list when you go to the supermarket is the easiest way to do that. One third of all food produced is lost to waste so taking the time to avoid buying more than you need is an important step. Research bigger purchases and don't click 'buy' without a waiting period. Online, I try to leave at least a week between adding to cart and checkout (the longer you wait, the more likely you are to receive a discount code via email!). 

Use what you have before you buy something new. If you have three different facial cleansers on your bathroom shelf, you probably don't need another one (I'm talking to myself here, too). Before you hit the clothes shops, ask yourself, do you have a dress you love that you haven't worn in ages? Finish the notebook before you buy a new one (she says, as a massive hypocrite. I'm a work in progress).

Join a no-spend group in your local area, get a library card, resell clothes, books, gadgets and beauty products you no longer want, download OLIO, use Facebook Marketplace, Gumtree, Craigslist, Poshmark or any of the dozens of other places there are online to sell and swap what you don't need. 

Reuse: The aim of the first two stages is that, by the time you reach this part, you have very little waste to deal with. For the waste you can't avoid, the first and best step you can take is to repurpose it and reuse. Repurposing, refilling and upcycling falls under this step, too. If you can, turn that jar into storage, that old towel into makeup remover pads or that stretched out t-shirt into a bag. Find a bulk buy store nearby and take your empty washing up liquid, hand soap and kitchen cleaner bottles to be refilled. Old clothes can be transformed into costumes for those bimonthly dress-up days that primary schools seem to have. 

Recycle: This depends on your local council and what recycling scheme they offer. Know what you can put in the wheelie bin or communal recycling bin and make sure you rinse your cans and bottles before you chuck 'em in. Visit your local household recycling centre to find out what you can take there. Garden waste, wood, electricals and clothing, assuming you can't sell, donate or reuse them somehow, can often be recycled there.

Look out for bottle banks in the car parks or your local petrol station and plastic bag and small battery recycling bins in your supermarket. Local schools and charities sometimes work with organisations like TerraCycle to recycle crips packets and coffee pods. If you can, seek out and find recycling opportunities.

Rot: This is the final step before landfill. If you can't avoid the waste, if it's not fit to be reused, not able to be recycled, ask yourself, can this be composted? 

Compost bins and wormeries are an easy at-home method of disposing of food scraps, cardboard and paper. You can find methods of doing this indoors or in your garden. If you don't have space, join a local composting group or find an allotment or community garden who'll take your scraps. My local council stopped their food waste collection, but yours might run one; ask.

In landfill, food waste releases greenhouses gases, in the compost heap, it nourishes the soil. It's not a difficult choice to make.