Going Zero Waste, Part 2: 5 R’s of Zero Waste

Once we learned that our recycling wasn’t actually being recycled like we thought, we began to really look at our lifestyle and evaluate what we were doing well and identify areas of improvement. I used the zero waste principles of 5 R’s, often credited to Bea Johnson of Zero Waste Home:


Refuse means to refuse to accept or bring in materials that create waste, things that you do not need. This means not purchasing items packaged in non-recyclable or non-compostable materials (plastic), single use items such as plastic straws or utensils, paper cups (bring your own reusable service items), freebies such as samples in plastic bottles, etc.

Did you know your favorite coffee place will probably fill your coffee bean canister with new coffee beans if you bring it in? Alan discovered this with Peet’s Coffee—his favorite—they are thrilled to grind up beans for him and put it in the bamboo Peet’s Coffee canister we’ve been dumping the bag of ground coffee into right after we’d gotten home and then tossed the bag. They even give him a discount for doing it as it saves them on having to use a costly coffee bean bag. I’m sure it also helps that he announces, “I’m saving the planet!” with outstretched arms when he’s greeted at the counter to place his coffee bean order (anyone who knows him can totally picture this, I’m certain)!!


Downsize, limiting yourself to the things you really do need, reducing quantities to what you need, reducing consumption. This includes resisting the urge for shopping as therapy, only buy things you really need, limit length of showers, run full laundry loads instead of multiple smaller ones, walk instead of drive, checkout books from the library instead of buying them, read books and newspapers online or on a personal device like a Kindle. Also buy food from bulk bins in your own containers or mesh bags rather than in packaging.


Select things that can be reused over and over for the same or different purpose. Use reusable containers for food storage and service, carry a reusable water and/or coffee cup with you, use cloth napkins and towels instead of paper napkins or paper towels, repurpose used or worn out items, like turning old socks or towels into rags, have furniture reupholstered instead of replaced.


Compost! Build a compost bin or even a worm bin to build beautiful compost for your garden and landscaping. Paper napkins and paper towels are compostable (although using cloth napkins and towels reduces production energy use and conserves trees), as are bamboo toothbrushes, walnut dish scrubbies, loofah sponges, floor sweepings, vacuum bag dust, hair, and even clothing made from cotton, linen, and denim (cut into small pieces and add to your compost). You can build a food digester and put outside that animals can’t get into and nourish your soil. Most communities have yard debris/food waste pickup too, which they turn into compost you or others can purchase back later.


Choose recycled products, buy items from a secondhand store, thrift store, Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace instead of buying new–and sell or donate your things this way rather than throwing them out. Use rechargeable batteries.

As I mentioned, Colleen Patrick-Goudreau adds three more R’s to her list:


Replace disposable/throw-away items with durable, high-quality items as they wear out. For example, perhaps you’re using a restaurant take-out container to take your lunch to work. When it wears out, find a durable replacement, like a metal bento box or glass container that will last years and years. Buy items with lifetime warranties, like Briggs & Riley luggage (Alan travels for work and his bag has flown over a million miles over ten years; it has been damaged several times when checked, the zipper has broken, and rolling wheel bearings have gone out. Briggs & Riley gives him a spare and repairs his bag for FREE!).


We’ve become a disposable society—when things wear out, we toss them and buy new. But oftentimes, things can be repaired. Take shoes to a cobbler for new soles, for example. The library system where I live recently hosted a repair clinic where you could bring a broken or non-working item in and they had tools and experts to help fix them—communities are hosting these all over the place.

My grandfather was the poster child of this concept—as a retired oral surgeon, he fixed or made everything with dental plastic, including an electric mixer I had in college, my grandma’s electric slicer (made from parts he found at Goodwill), and my parents’ first dishwasher. I still have a standard screwdriver with a half denture-gum-pink repaired handle he made decades ago! While I realize using dental plastic is just more plastic, I just want to share how the concept of repairing something rather than tossing it is something previous generations valued and we’ve lost. This screwdriver will certainly live for the next 500 years!

Screwdriver my Dental Surgeon Grandfather Repaired with Dental Plastic!


Become more self-reliant. Learn how to cook dried beans instead of buying canned beans, make bread, learn how to can food, grow herbs and vegetables in containers on your patio, etc. It doesn’t have to be difficult and I find it really satisfying to do these things.

The key is to take small steps—you can’t make this change overnight. We’re all going to start out with heaps of non-Zero Waste things, the key is to transition to better options as we use those up. If you have a new package of paper towels from Costco, don’t throw them away, use them up, compost after use, and then don’t replace them when they’re gone. Same with paper napkins, use what you have and switch to cloth. Little changes can make a big difference, and many little changes make a big change.

We’re not perfect. We’re finding things we are struggling with and have to figure out how to accommodate the change. But already we’ve found it satisfying, fun, and even saves us money! Have fun and have more money?!? Sign me up!

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