Recycling is a hugely important part of protecting our planet from its spiralling waste problem, but did you know it’s actually the last step in the five Rs?
The five Rs are: refuse, reduce, reuse, repurpose and recycle. So before your waste gets to the recycling stage, there are actually four other considerations to bear in mind.
Here’s a breakdown of the five Rs so you can make better decisions about what you’re throwing away and what doesn’t even need to become waste in the first place.
There are actually two different versions of the five Rs of waste management, and both are useful mnemonics to help people understand what they should do with their waste.
The first version, which we’ll be focusing on in this post, is refuse, reduce, reuse, repurpose and recycle, which we’ll break down shortly.
Others use a slightly different version: refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle, rot, which combines “reuse” and “repurpose”, while adding “rot” to highlight composting.
In practice, both versions amount to basically the same thing.
When working out your waste management strategy, whether for your household or a company, make a list of the most common waste items you produce.
For each, start at step one (“refuse”) and if you don’t think there’s any way you can possibly apply that step, move on to the next one (“reuse”) and so on.
Hopefully, you won’t make it all the way to “recycle” and instead you’ll come up with far better uses for your waste (or, ideally, solutions that mean you don’t need to create it in the first place).
Following the five Rs will not only help protect the environment by keeping waste out of landfill sites, but you’ll also save money, because unlike recycling, the first four Rs are actually quite cost-effective.
But let’s start from the beginning of the five Rs so you understand the process step-by-step…
The first step in the five Rs is to simply say “no” to packaging and products that are going to create unnecessary waste.
Start with plastic bags at the supermarket and disposable cups at the coffee shop, and you’re already well on your way. It’s one of the easiest changes to make because all you need to do is purchase a few durable bags for your shopping and a quality cup that you can take with you to the café.
Also consider things you commonly consume that might be replaced with a reusable item so you never need to buy it again, such as cleaning brushes (you can use silicone ones) or kitchen rolls (try washable cloths and napkins).
For companies looking to streamline their waste management, this can require a lot of collaboration from the procurement department, but the best place to start might be looking at deals with suppliers whereby you can return durable packaging or simply ask for unnecessary packaging not to be used in the first place.
It goes without saying that it’s not possible to refuse everything that’s bad for the environment.
Some retailers, including large supermarket chains, don’t make it easy for consumers to choose ethical products and packaging – not to mention the fact that you might just be in a rush sometimes.
But when refusing isn’t on the cards, you can always consume less. For example, consider buying items that you purchase regularly in bulk. If you can afford the upfront payment, you’ll not only be saying “no” to unnecessary packaging (one larger container is usually better than several small ones) but you’ll also have cash leftover in your shopping budget.
Learning to get the most out of the food you use (herb stalks can be used to flavour soups and broths once the leaves have been picked, for example) will make a marked difference in the amount of waste you generate.
Take a good inventory of what you already have before a food shop and track your eating habits so you can avoid throwing out rotten food and only get a new shop once you’ve used everything up. If you enjoy cooking, this actually becomes a bit of a game in the kitchen.
Visiting a shop that allows you to bring your own containers to buy loose food every now and again is better than using packaged products all the time.
And you’ve probably worked or studied somewhere that encourages printing on both sides of a sheet of paper and saving scrap sheets to be used for rough work…
The obvious place to start is reusing things like single-use plastic bottles and cutlery that in fact can be used several times over before they need to be disposed of.
Choose products like rechargeable batteries and encourage your office to do away with paper plates and cups in favour of kitchen items that can be cleaned and reused. The main culprit in the workplace is plastic coffee cups, which are not only bad for the environment but also tend to get left around the office, making the place look untidy.
Office managers can eliminate this waste altogether by gifting everyone in the office their own company-branded mug with their name on it (people lose track of office mugs if they’re not personalised).
It’s at this stage of the five Rs that you want to consider if the item in question is something that can be given away to a friend, family member, or local charity shop. There’s £10bn worth of unworn garments cluttering up the wardrobes of Britain, so clothes typically don’t need to make it past the reuse step.
Another great way to reuse is to frequent charity shops and second-hand auctions yourself, rather than buying new products.
To really master the reuse step, get yourself a good toolkit equipped with soldering iron and strong glue to increase the life of a great many things in your house.
What’s the difference between repurposing and reusing? Where a plastic bottle can be reused for the same purpose (drinking water), repurposing would be taking that same plastic bottle, cutting it in half and creating a slow watering system for plants while you’re away.
SunSkips pro tip: pick a couple of things from this list of repurposing (or “upcycling”) idea for common waste:
While encouraging people to recycle their waste is already a big challenge, it’s actually the last resort considering the above alternatives.
The reason it’s important to consider the other four options before recycling is that the process of turning waste into something useful consumes a lot of energy.
On top of that, a lot of plastics can only be recycled a certain number of times before the fibres break down and it becomes too weak.
You can even make money from a well-optimised recycling process. Companies should consider a waste audit to uncover where they might be able to sell things like scrap metal and ink cartridges for cash, while domestic recyclers can sometimes get free vouchers from shops when they donate items or bring back packaging.
Understand the recycling services provided by your local authority (some counties collect materials that others don’t). The main materials to focus on are paper, plastic, glass and organics. Specific items like plastic bags and batteries will need to be taken to a dedicated recycling facility, although you may find supermarkets that allow you to drop off things like that.
For example, if you’re a Suffolk resident, visit Suffolk Recycles to learn about how to properly dispose of all your recyclable waste.
If your local authority doesn’t collect all types of recyclable waste (green waste, for example), consider hiring a skip from a waste management company that will recycle all your waste through a thorough screening line.
As mentioned earlier, an alternate version of the five Rs includes “rot”, which refers to composting. If you have the garden space (or somewhere to put an odour-free composting container in the kitchen), composting is a really effective way of recycling your own food and will eventually provide you with valuable fertilizer for your plants.
Obviously, this step only applies to organic materials like food and garden waste, but greasy and dirty paper/cardboard can also be added to the mix.
At SunSkips, we reuse, repurpose and recycle as much Suffolk and Cambridgeshire waste as possible. If you could do with getting rid of some waste with modern eco-friendly methods, call SunSkips today or book a skip online.