The 5 R’s of Zero Waste

The 5 R’s of Zero Waste

Do you know the 5 R’s of zero waste? You probably know three of them: Reduce reuse, recycle. These were coined in the late 1970s to help the public curb their affinity for creating waste. After all, in the 1950s when the economic boom happened, there was an increase in trash (and litter) being produced by Americans. This was because of the growing popularity of single-use items. However, it wasn’t long until people realized the environmental impact humans were having on the planet. Thus, the 3 R’s were born, following the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. It was taught and implemented in schools and communities everywhere with the overall goal of every person understanding the importance of protecting the earth.

However, despite our familiarity with the 3 R’s, we’re still producing an insane amount of trash. Humans have created 8.3 billion metric tons of plastics since large scale production began in the early 1950s. Most of it now resides in landfills or the natural environment. That’s because only 9% of plastic actually gets recycled. That’s incredibly low! Not to mention when plastic is recycled, it’s really just downcycled into something of lesser quality. This means it can never be the same thing twice. Clearly, recycling isn’t the answer we need. So, one of the R’s is flawed and shouldn’t be given as much emphasis as it is.

With the zero waste movement gathering more and more traction as time passes, it’s essential to update these R’s to better reflect what action needs to be taken. If we truly want a circular economy, and to reduce waste, we need to think bigger. And better yet, we need to think of the order we prioritize those R’s. In 2013, Bea Johnson, arguably the founder of zero waste, coined the five R’s in her book Zero Waste Home. They are, in this order: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and Rot. This is a framework for how we should handle waste in our lives. Here’s a look at the 5 R’s of zero waste more in-depth.

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The 5 R’s of Zero Waste

The 5 R's of Zero Waste

Before we begin, it’s important to remember that with the 5 R’s, the order matters! Think of it like an upside down pyramid with Refuse at the thicker end and Rot at the bottom. The order goes as such: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and Rot. You’ll be doing the most refusing, and rotting whatever you’re left with (aka composting). Personally, I feel Recycle should be at the very bottom – you want to do the least of it – but this is the order Bea Johnson put it in her book. Just something to consider!


The first step in reducing waste is refusing it from the start. It’s about learning to say “no” to single-use items or free stuff that will eventually just become clutter or trash anyway.

It does take some practice and preparation to incorporate and actively use reusable items on the daily. But it’s a big step in reducing the trash that comes into your life. Reusable items are investments that keep on giving!

Here are some items you want to refuse on the daily:

  • Disposable coffee cups (just use a reusable travel mug)
  • Plastic straws (metal, glass, bamboo or silicone straws are great alternatives)
  • Disposable utensils (take your metal cutlery from home, or get reusable bamboo utensils)
  • Plastic water bottles (bring a reusable water bottle with you everywhere)
  • Paper napkins and towels (use cloth napkins and unpaper towels instead)
  • Say no to free handouts (like goodie bags, magazines, flyers, free coupons, etc.)

In regards to free items, we’ve been conditioned to say yes to them simply because they’re free. But take a moment to really think before accepting them – what value will they add to your life? Will they just sit on your desk and gather dust? Are they just marketing propaganda? We have to recondition our brain to say no to things like this, but it can be done.

As far as flyers, posters, and business cards go – consider taking a picture of it, rather than accepting the free hand out. It’s less waste and less clutter for you!


Reducing goes hand-in-hand with refusing. Simply reduce the amount of items you purchase by being mindful of what you truly need or want.

Before making purchases, be realistic about what you actually need. Get into the habit of asking yourself the tough questions: Do I really need this? What will I use it for? What value will this add to my life? Will I actually use it?

If you do need the item, be sure to look at the quality and how it’s made. It’s important to purchase products that are well-made so they’ll last you longer, reducing the amount of times you have to re-purchase. When you do purchase items, be sure to take care of them by following cleaning and care instructions.

It’s important to not only reduce your consumption as a whole, but to reduce the kind of items you buy. It’s always better to buy items that are zero waste friendly, made ethically and sustainably, and crafted or grown locally when possible. Reducing your impact with each purchase is the overall goal!

Here are 10 zero waste shops that will help you choose ethical, built-to-last items, should you have to make a purchase.


Reusing and repairing are quite quintessential for this R. Instead of just tossing an item after it breaks, ask yourself if there’s a way you can reuse or repair it. This applies to electronics, clothing, furniture, etc. Seek repair options first before immediately buying a new one.

If your laptop or phone breaks, try to find a local shop that will repair it for you instead of tossing it out and grabbing the latest model. For ripped clothing, see if you can mend it yourself, if anyone in your family can sew it back up, or take it to a tailor. You can also cut it up and upcycle it into rags or something entirely different (old sweatpants into sweat shorts anyone?). For furniture, see if you can repair the item yourself or get a professional’s help.

Reusing can also mean donating items you no longer want (but are in good condition). You can do this by listing the item on Craigslist, a local buy nothing group, having a yard sale, giving it to a loved one, or donating it to a thrift store.

Buying secondhand is a form of reuse too. Consider hitting up some thrift or antique stores if you need something. You’ll save a lot of money and keep something out of the landfill. Libraries are also excellent resources for reusing items! You can reuse everything in there: Books, CDs, DvDs, magazines, and even computers. Make sure to get and utilize a library card if you haven’t already!


Recycling is far from perfect. It’s a good place to start, but a bad place to end. Still, there are going to be items you wind up having to recycle.

When you recycle, make sure you’re sorting and cleaning your recyclables according to local regulations. Every state is different in terms of what they accept for recycling, so keep that in mind. Some general guidelines for recycling can be found on the EPA’s website.

If you live in NYC like me, here’s a whole guide to what you can and cannot recycle in NYC that I wrote. And, for more info on the various kinds of plastic and which are generally easier to recycle, check out this guide to plastics.

Recycling is a confusing process and not everything you toss into the recycling bin will actually get recycled unfortunately. However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t recycle. You absolutely should. But it’s evident we need better systems in place – especially after the world went nuts when China stopped accepting recycled waste in 2018.

We definitely need to rely less on recycling and advocate for businesses to use plastic-free alternatives to packaging.

That said, recycling is here to stay, so we should do our best to make sure as much material is properly recycled as possible. A cool, interactive idea may be to look into creating signs for your community that list what they can and cannot recycle as a reminder!


The final R – my personal favorite. Rot is basically in reference to composting.

Composting isn’t as hard as it seems. If you live in an area that has zero outdoor space (like me, an apartment dweller), then vermicomposting or dropping your food scraps off might be the solution for you. Here’s the ultimate guide to composting in an apartment – it’s sure to help you out.

If you have a yard to work with, or even a balcony – great! You have several options for composting, including a tumbler which is so freaking cool. You just add your food scraps in, give it a spin, and it becomes compost in a matter of weeks.

Compost is so important because food that goes into the trash bin just winds up heading to a landfill where it doesn’t decompose. Instead, it turns into methane which is 30 times more potent than CO2 (yikes). Food waste isn’t cool!

When you compost, you advert this and literally transform those food scraps into beautiful soil fertilizer. It’s the ultimate form of recycling. Plus, you can use it in your garden or sell it if you don’t have a garden.

The 5 R's of Zero Waste
Personally, I feel like Recycling should be the last R – you want to do the least of it – but this is the order Bea Johnson had in her book. Just something to consider!

Looking beyond the 5 R’s: Next Steps

If you’re looking to go zero waste, these 5 R’s are great guidelines to follow. However, don’t beat yourself up if you can’t follow them to the T. Everyone’s life is different: Maybe you can’t compost at this time, or you don’t have access to recycling.

Just do the best you can and remember – we have to look beyond the 5 R’s too.

While it’s important for individuals to reduce the waste they create, and it’s a good place to start, it’s also unfair to put all the pressure on individual actions. Companies, businesses and governments should do everything in their power to help create a more circular economy too – and we should always put pressure on them to do so.

Because here’s the truth – we’ll never truly be a zero waste society if our infrastructure doesn’t change. It’s impossible to create absolutely no waste (or be “closed loop” essentially) when our own infrastructure isn’t setup for it (for example: Not setting up compost bins everywhere there are recycling bins).

We live in a linear economy, so most of the items we buy are created just to be disposed of. It’s disposal culture at its finest. The life cycle of items is not taken into account.

Along with products, cities can also do better jobs at instilling composting facilities and making it a requirement. And, they can also create better recycling facilities where everything gets recycled – not just a few items. Clearer recycling labels on bins would be helpful as well and prevent a lot of “wishcycling.” Bans can also be imposed on single-use items (like the plastic bag ban in NYC).

So, while the 5 R’s are incredibly important, it’s not the end all solution to our waste problems. But, it is a great place to start and spread awareness.

The 5 R's of Zero Waste

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By Ariana Storniolo (Palmieri)

Ariana Storniolo is the founder of Greenify-Me, a blog dedicated to zero waste and sustainability. Her work has also been featured on Going Zero Waste, Green Matters, Mother Earth Living and several other online publications.

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