The 6 Rs: making a sustainable impact

By Saara J. Alatervo, College of Business and Public Policy and Honors College, University of Alaska, Anchorage. Saara J. Alatervo is an undergraduate business major and honors student.

America is a disposable nation. Each person on average produces more than 1,600 pounds of trash each year. In total, over 230 million tons of trash accumulates in landfills yearly in the United States. Seventy percent of the trash that makes its way to landfills could be recycled (Annenberg Foundation, 2012). Recycling is one of the 6 Rs of sustainability. The 6 Rs include: reinvent/rethink, refuse, reduce, reuse/repair, recycle, replace/rebuy. When we apply the 6 Rs to their lives we promote sustainable practices. But we must make the conscious effort to do so. 

On November 15, 2012 at the University of Alaska, Anchorage, my UAA Honors Limits to Growth class and the University’s Office of Sustainability hosted an event called “Trash the Cuddy.” Outside the Lucy Cuddy Hall, a common meeting place for students and faculty, we put a majority of the day’s garbage across campus on display. We piled dozens of bags several feet high. The amount of trash accumulated in one day was astonishing to onlookers. The students hosting the event greeted spectators and asked them to take a survey, while answering the questions they had.  Inside, students ran an information booth while enticing others with pizza and reusable water bottles. We shared the story behind the creation of aluminum cans, provided information on how to recycle and encouraged people to be environmentally conscious. This event was intended to help raise awareness of sustainability issues. Through awareness, people can make a conscious effort to behave in such a way that their actions have a reduced impact on the environment.

In just one year, UAA accumulates enough garbage to fill an entire football field 4.5 feet high. However, the Office of Sustainability is working to divert the amount of trash away from landfills towards recycling centers. Last year alone they were able to recycle about 245,000 pounds of material. UAA redirected about 34,600 aluminum cans, 70,000 20-ounce plastic bottles and 22,043,100 sheets of paper away from the landfills.  It is astonishing to think that UAA salvaged these vast quantities of materials. This raises the question, how much does the average person throw away and how much could be recycled as well?

WastedisposalhierarchiesOn average, Americans throw away about 4.5 pounds of trash each day. While this figure may seem small at first, over the course of a year that amount accumulates to roughly 1,642 pounds of trash (Clean Air Council, n.d.). United States as a whole produces over 230 million TONS of trash each year. Less than 25% of this trash is being recycled, while over 70% of the total trash that makes its way to landfills could be recycled. That’s over 120 million tons of material that could be recovered left to waste (Annenberg Foundation, 2012). It is undeniable that the US is a disposable nation but what can we do about it? UAA alone produces football fields worth of garbage after all and it’s impossible to produce zero trash altogether. If we do nothing, the current trend of mass consumption and disposal will ultimately harm the environment and result in growing economic costs. Disposing of trash is not a free process. City municipalities and states bear this burden which falls back on the citizens (Kazmeyer, 2012). However, the average consumer can make a difference in this process by applying the 6 Rs to their lives: rethink/reinvent, refuse, reduce, reuse/repair, recycle, replace/rebuy, (Green Triangle Blog, 2012).

Rethink/Reinvent: consider and question consumption habits

To make a difference, people must make a conscious effort to do so. That begins by questioning our actions. We must ask ourselves, do we really need these things? Is there another use for this? Can this be recycled? (Green Triangle Blog, 2012). These are just some of the basic questions that we should consider every day. By investing more time in understanding personal consumption habits, people will become increasingly self-aware of their effect on the environment. This self-awareness may influence their behavior, values and consumption habits.

Refuse: make the choice to not generate waste

5Rs-bewareofimagesThe most direct method of reducing the amount of trash is by refusing to consume. This does not mean to stop generating trash altogether but rather to stop consuming particular products. A person may decide not to buy certain items that generate more waste than benefit. For example, a person may feel the need to buy apples every time he goes to the store. However he may not eat them and often they go to waste. Knowing this, one may decide to quit purchasing apples which will result reduces the amount of waste they produce.

Of course, there are other reasons why people may choose to make a conscious effort to refrain from buying certain products. A person may decide to refuse a product either because of the quality, a short shelf life or it cannot be easily repaired, the company’s ethics, the chemicals involved, and so on. Whatever the rationale behind declining product purchases the result is less trash. This lifestyle operates from the value of learning to do without, to make do with what you have.

Reduce: make decisions that decrease the amount of waste produced

To cut trash, simply consume less. It is the idea that less is more. We can reduce the amount of material, toxins and waste sent to landfills through various means:

  • Buy only what we need, by avoiding impulse shopping or purchasing too much of an item.
  • Buy reusable or refillable items. An example of this is using a shopping bag rather than plastic bag, a coffee mug and not wax paper cup.
  • Buy in bulk or economy-size. An example of this is by purchasing economy size cereal bags and not several smaller bags of cereal which would result in more waste.
  • Avoid single-serving sizes. An example of this is by making pudding in a large bowl rather than purchasing single serving plastic cups of pudding.
  • Products with less packaging. An example of this is by selecting a product in a smaller cardboard box and not a product enclosed in plastic. (EPA, 2012).  Check this

By taking these tips to heart, people will cut the amount of trash they generate.

Re-Use/Repair: expand the shelf-lives of  products

By reusing what you already have or by reinventing new uses for the item, you can extend the item’s product life. Before rushing out to the store to buy an item make the decision to buy as a last recourse. For example, we can use pickle jars for storage rather than buying a brand new container. It’s the idea of being creative with the things you have, to extend the life of a product. Even perishable items can be reused through compost (LaPado-Breglia, 2011).

If I no longer have a use for the item I can give away the item instead of throwing it away. I can donate unwanted equipment, furniture, supplies, clothes to a nonprofit organization, schools, a shelter or charity. Also, I may able to reclaim some of the value of my items through consignment stores or pawn shops. If there is no other use for the product, then recycle.

Recycle: reclaim the raw materials

By separating items such as aluminum cans and plastic, we can reclaim the raw materials from these items which would have otherwise been thrown away. While recycling takes added effort compared to simply throwing the item in the garbage, there are many benefits in doing so. Recycled materials typically require less energy to process compared to developing new materials altogether (National Recyling Coalition, 2011). These items are not left in the landfill to rot and decompose resulting in reduced air and water pollution (Thibault, 2008). Helps conserve natural resources and sustain the environment for future generations. What can be recycled, though? There is an array of items, including paper, aluminum, yard trimmings, glass, and plastic, used motor oil, steel and batteries. Consumers can recycle these materials by disposing of them in separate trash bins at home, work and school. These items can then be dropped off at local recycling collection sites and processing plants. Many cities, through their municipality waste management programs, offer curbside recycling option as well. By taking the time to separate these items, diverting them away from landfills through recycling, we can cut our impact on the environment.

Replace/Rebuy: next time consider recycled and green content

Inuit suit, pre 1927, Liverpool Museums
Inuit suit, pre 1927, Liverpool Museums

Consumers can promote recycled products by purchasing items that incorporate recycled materials (Wake Forest University, 2012).  We make these items in whole or in part from material recovered from the waste stream. Consumers can look for labels on packages that include a percentage of recovered materials. If the demand for these products is present, businesses have an incentive to continue producing items that are more environmentally friendly. In addition, consumers can choose to replace a majority of their goods with green products. These products often contain fewer harmful chemicals, reduced emissions in production and/or incorporate renewable materials into their production (Vermeer & Michalko, 2010). By reviewing green certifications and recovered material percentage labels, consumers can make better informed buying decisions that promote sustainable practices.

ESEIn order for any change to take place, people must first make a conscious effort to do so. The final five Rs are dependent on the first, rethinking. It is that moment of pause, that hesitation to throw out something that still has value; it’s the recognition of that value that creates change. While it may take practice, as most habits don’t develop overnight, over time an individual’s conscious efforts may become part of her character. Living a life that supports sustainable practices may influence others to do the same as there are many long-term benefits in doing so. In order to reap the benefits though, it takes the willingness to change for the better.

Header art: King’s School, Winchester, UK