Australia’s waste problem has been brought into focus in recent years. Global shifts in waste management and production have come about with China recyclables agreement being retracted, legislation passed on single-use plastic and program series such as โ€œWar on Waste,โ€ gaining global attention.ย It is fair to say many consumers are making a conscious effort to address the negative impacts their consumption habits are having on the environment. It’s a great start, but itโ€™s not enough. We need to see the vast majority commit to a sustainable lifestyle.ย  The 5Rโ€™s of zero waste living, as developed by Bea Johnson, gives a great framework to do just that. Like all good frameworks, we need to make sure our Rโ€™s are addressed in the right order. So first things first!

REFUSE – what you don’t need

This is by far the R with the most impact and potential to act as a catalyst for change. Simply learning to say no. No to plastic bags, no to produce packaged in plastic, no to junk mail, no to the extra item because it’s a two for one offer, no to junk giveaways, no to the brochure you can easily find online. We need to remember each yes has an environmental cost. Check out our article on ten tips to reduce your environmental footprint for more ideas and inspiration. Be thoughtful when buying, use the power of your dollar to tell companies what you want and don’t want. The law of supply and demand will activate a shift if we stay the course. 

REDUCE – what you do need 

The next R is an opportunity to take a closer look at our buying habits and belongings to determine whether or not these are meeting or exceeding our needs. Itโ€™s time to move past our impulsive habits of yesterday and reduce the waste of tomorrow. Donate your excess clothing, reduce the amount you buy and opt for upcycled or experience based gifts.

There have been numerous studies on the effect clutter has on our health. Clutter affects both our physical environment and emotional state. It has links to anxiety, depression and unhealthy attachment harbouring psychological components of sentiment, memories, fear, guilt, obligation and/or hope. Itโ€™s time to drop off the excess baggage and start making conscious purchase decisions that better serve both humanity and our planet. 

REUSE – does it have a second purpose

Reusing an item as much as possible helps to keep it out of landfill. Thereโ€™s also the more literal side to this R, which is buying reusable items in place of disposables. This goes for shopping bags, straws, coffee cups and containers to name a few. 

To the reuse enthusiast, you are only limited by your imagination when it comes to trash. Is that an old bike tire tube? No, itโ€™s a years supply of custom size plastic bands. Is that a wine cork or floating key ring? And when it comes to kids craft, well the skies the limit.  One person’s trash is another person’s treasure after all!

RECYCLE – what you canโ€™t refuse, reduce, or reuse

Recycle your plastic, paper, glass or metal items that you cannot refuse, reduce, or reuse. While recycling is very important, we need to reposition it as a last resort in the waste management hierarchy. This is especially true in the wake of Australiaโ€™s plastic waste epidemic, with millions of tons being stockpiled in warehouses or shipped to South-East Asia to be illegally burned. 

Recycling has several benefits, supporting jobs, reducing waste to landfill and raising environmental awareness, but it is far from a perfect solution. Systems are not always transparent and can cause further environmental pollution, it is costly and many countries lack the infrastructure to keep up with supply. Recycling in some instances also gives people a false sense that their efforts offset the environmental impact of their other choices. Weโ€™ve all been riding the recycling train for a little too long, itโ€™s time to refocus on the more important steps that come before it – refuse, reduce, reuse.

ROT – natures recycling system

Organic waste represents the single biggest component of residential waste going into landfill. Australian households condemn 3.1 million tons of edible food to landfill each year. The environmental impacts of this are enormous, with methane emissions being released into the atmosphere 84 times more potent in the short term than carbon dioxide.

Australia is currently sending 5.3 million tons of food waste to landfill every year. A recent study conducted by RMIT University found that 15% of food eaten out is left uneaten by the consumer. A further 40% of food waste happens in the kitchen, 2% from spoilage and 58% is plate waste. 

If you are making a conscious effort to forecast portions and reduce your consumption habits there should be less food waste being produced. But for what is left over it has an opportunity for a second life too as compost! Natureโ€™s recycling system. Millions of tons of waste could be diverted from landfills if we all simply composted our kitchen scraps. You can find out more about compost in our article – the secret life of compost. 

If you focus on taking small steps in your everyday life and keep this hierarchy in mind, you will find that you produce drastically less waste. Being aware of the things we purchase and take into our homes can highlight how much we DONโ€™T need. Let’s change our mindsets and shift our focus from recycling to refuse, reduce and reuse for a sustainable future.