The 3 R's : Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

A pirate's guide to a greener life.

Alyssa Martino
3-minute read

Arrr, matey! Welcome ta Green Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for an Earth Friendly Life! It's time for the episode ye all be waitin' forr. This one's for all ye eco-pirates out therr! Today we gonna be talkin' about the three R's. Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle.

But first, don't forget to sail down to local bookstore, or contact yer favorite online retailer to get yourself a copy of the new book by Mignon Fogarty. Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing will help yah sail those uncharted grammerical waters in style. Ahoy!

What are the Three R's?

Back in the days of one room schoolhouses in America, the three R's used to be Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic, even though only one started with an R. These were fundamental skills for children to learn in the 1800s school system. For students of sustainability, like you guys, there's a different lesson. Reduce, reuse, and recycle.

This eco-mantra became popular about 30 years ago when the EPA first started looking into hazardous waste and what to do with it. They're in order, too. Reducing will make more positive impact than reusing, which in turn will make more impact than recycling.

What Does Reduce Mean?

Reducing means to cut down on how much stuff we use and throw away. Americans make twice as much trash per person than we did 35 years ago, according to the EPA. The increase comes mostly from the way our consumer goods have changed.

Packaging of goods and materials has become a larger percentage of the weight of the item, and are usually things you can't reuse. Books used to be shipped in brown paper packages, and you could reuse the paper and the string. Or you bought items from the store, and were not given any packaging OR a plastic shopping bag.

Now DVDs come shrink wrapped and packed in cardboard boxes with a bunch of foam inside them. Reducing the packaging you're responsible for is a good way to start reducing waste. Look for items that aren't packed in plastic over plastic over plastic. Try to buy goods in bulk instead of packages, and make your own portions at home with reusable containers.

Another change in our consumer goods is their disposability. Try to buy items of good quality that are made to be used more than once--even if they cost a little more--and try not to buy on a whim. Goods like electronics, furniture, housewares, and cars used to last a lifetime, so even though things cost more, we bought less of them, thereby spending less of our hard-earned money.

Now, manufacturers not only plan their demise--a strategy called planned obsolescense--but they also advertise in more insidious ways to make you fickle enough to throw out the old and get the newest model. Think through your purchases, and check out the quality of what you buy. If things break, try to fix them before throwing them away. Your belongings will last longer, and you'll be happier with them, putting less useless junk in the landfill.

What Does Reuse Mean?

If you're stuck with an old radio that doesn't work or clothes you don't want, there is another option besides junking it. You can reuse it! Reuse means that something old is new again. It may not be serving the same purpose, but it's not going in the trash. For example, old soft T-shirts with lots of holes in them make the best cleaning rags for nice wood furniture and polishing leather shoes.

The point is to hover over the trash can at the point you would have normally chucked something, and say "Self, stop what you're doing. What else could we do with that doo-hickey?" When you get plastic cartons of to-go food, reuse them for lunch boxes and leftover storage. Glass jars that have been cleaned and the label removed make great containers for bathroom supplies, dry goods like flour and sugar, and decorative items like flowers and candles.

What Does Recycled Mean?

If you absolutely positively have no use for it, the last option before you hit the trash is recycling. Recycling means something is changed back to it's unmade nature, and made into something new.

For example, glass is one of the best containers to buy, because even though it costs more to haul around the country, glass lasts a lot longer than plastic in your reuse cycle. Then, once you get sick of putting flowers in an old coke bottle, that coke bottle can be melted down into slag and poured into any other glass shape, almost an infinite amount of time.

By contrast, plastics break down over many recycles, and tend not to form such durable plastics again. Many are not recycleable at all, because once they are set in their shape, the burn instead of melt over the fire. Paper fibers also break down over time, so we can't stop making new paper just by recycling all the paper we've already made.

Arrr! Now that yah know the 3 R's, you can reduce, reuse, and recycle your way to becoming a great eco-pirate. Smooth sailing on yer eco-voyage, matey!