At one point or another, we’ve all learned about the ‘3 Rs’–Reduce, Reuse, Recycle– but many of us still don’t know how to put these guidelines into action. While most people have a general sense of what the 3 Rs mean, we’re due for a quick recap with some practical examples.
At the top of the hierarchy, there’s “Reduce”. Reducing overall consumption means producing less unnecessary waste from your household. An easy approach to reducing your consumption is to question your purchases: do you need it? Are you going to use it multiple times?
Some might think that being eco-friendly means buying more products that are marketed as environmentally-friendly. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Making the decision to decrease new waste is key, and that means reducing consumption overall.
There are many ways to put Reduce into action. If you are going to a coffee shop, consider drinking there, or bring a thermos from home rather than accepting a takeaway cup. When you feel that the heat is unbearable, consider using a fan instead of aircon (fans use nine times less electricity!)
Part of reducing consumption is to take a good look at what you already own, and reuse it! A great example is sticking to reusable containers for takeout food or grocery shopping. Shopping at wet markets or zero-waste stores will allow you to buy packaging-free groceries which you can carry in your own containers and fabric shopping bags.
Of course, sometimes it’s inevitable that we forget to bring our own containers to restaurants. The plastic box the restaurant gives you is generally also reusable, but bear in mind that they cannot be used or heated up too many times, as heat can cause parts of the plastic to melt and release harmful chemicals.
It’s also possible to ‘reuse’ clothes, extending the life cycle of a piece of clothing by buying secondhand. You can also consider buying items to replace single-use disposables–for instance, use handkerchiefs instead of tissue paper, as they can be washed and used over and over again.
Recycle has always received a lot of attention, but it’s actually a last resort when it comes to a greener lifestyle. Let’s take the example of plastic. According to the latest data from the Hong Kong government, only 7-10% of plastic waste is being recycled in Hong Kong. Plastic production has boomed since 1950, but only 9% has been recycled globally.
The problem does not only stem from low recycling efforts within communities: it’s also partially due to highly selective recycling facilities, who prefer to process only ‘economically valuable plastic’ and discard the remainder. This is not an optimal way to deal with plastic waste. When plastic ends up in landfills, it does not fully decompose. It breaks down into very fine pieces and travels into the sea or through the air right back to us and the natural environment.
Similarly, other items thrown into recycling bins often do not get recycled. They are often highly contaminated, or they are not in the right bins. The lives of the paper, cans, glass and plastic, rather than being processed into something new, might still end at recycling bins thanks to improper categorizing or collection. There are generally some local initiatives helping to ensure proper recycling and collection–in Hong Kong, WasteNoMall and Missing Link Polyfoam Recycling are two examples.
Because of the focus on recycling, which can be ineffective, and a lack of attention on the other two Rs, we are still witnessing tremendous harm being done to the environment. It takes more than the 3 Rs to alleviate the environmental problems we face. Deeper thinking and exploration is required from consumers and businesses alike in order to achieve sustainability, and this leads to the fourth R – “Rethink”.
Rethink should be the overarching focus across the other three Rs. Rethinking means being mindful not only of your personal wellbeing, but also paying more attention to your environment and the things you consume every day. Every purchase has a cost associated with it, whether it’s the monetary value, environmental impact, or even the physical space it takes up. If you don’t need something, don’t buy it.
On an individual level, investing more time in understanding our own personal consumption habits is always a good practice, as it will eventually lead to positive actions that relate to the 3 Rs and minimize the impact we have on the environment. It’s just as important for businesses to re-examine the environmental challenges posed by their products, from manufacture, to consumption, to disposal. This kind of rethinking can encourage businesses to be more competitive in an era of rising eco-consciousness.
‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle’ is a super-simplified action plan for the growing problem of consumer waste, and ultimately supports the conservation of natural resources, landfill space and energy. However, it’s often just a catchy environmental slogan with little tangible impact. With the fourth R, Rethink, it can be turned into a real and impactful way of doing your part for the environment.
About the Author
Small steps accumulate to significant strides. Earthero Project works towards laying down the first steps towards your journey to sustainability and gradually countering the convenience behavior so common around us. We introduce environmentally friendly alternatives, share day-to-day lifestyle tips to reduce waste based on our firsthand experience, and communicate issues very relevant to us and our beautiful planet Earth. To read more about other eco tips, feel free to visit us on instagram @eartheroproject.