How to Live By the 5 Rs of Zero Waste

Are you familiar with the 5 R’s of zero waste? You’re probably already aware of 3 of them: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. The slogan can be traced back to the environmental movement of the 1970s as more Americans demanded attention to improving water, waste and air quality. After Congress passed the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act in 1976, “Reduce, Reuse and Recycle” was taught in schools and community programs nationwide to help more people understand the importance of protecting the Earth. But, despite the popularity of this motto, waste is still a huge problem in the United States. The average American produces 4.9 lbs of trash per day and only 9% of plastic is recycled (the rest is trapped in landfill or littering the environment). 

With the birth of the zero waste movement, there's a new framework for reducing waste. Coined by Bea Johnson in her 2013 book, Zero Waste Home, the 5 R’s of zero waste offer an incredibly useful and easy guide to reduce daily waste at home, work, special events and on-the-go. The order of the 5 R’s is intentional, starting with the most impactful method to curb waste, "Refuse." Let’s take a closer look.


The R with the biggest impact on waste reduction is also very easy to implement with some preparation and practice. We are continuously offered free items in our daily lives—grocery and shopping bags, plastic straws, flyers, junk mail. We rarely need these disposable products, but we’ve been conditioned to accept them. Instead, keep a to-go kit handy when you’re heading out. Reusable bags for grocery and shopping trips, a reusable mug or water bottle to hydrate, cutlery and cloth napkin for dining out and a container for leftovers. In terms of freebies like business cards, swag, beauty samples, etc, get in the practice of saying “no thanks.” It may feel impolite or rude at first, but when we accept these disposable items we reinforce the demand for more wasteful products. 

How To Start:

  • Plastic straws: Request no straw when you’re dining out and consider bringing a reusable metal or glass straw when you’re on the go. 
  • Business cards and flyers: Take a picture of it on your phone. 
  • Dentist freebies: Let them know you don’t need free samples so they can use it for the next patient. 


If we consumed nothing, there would be no waste. But the goal of zero waste is not to buy nothing, but to buy less and be more intentional before making new purchases. Shopping can give us an endorphin rush similar to sex or working out, and we can literally become addicted to the pleasure of buying something new. That pleasure is short lived and we are left with less money and items we don’t actually use or need, not to mention guilt. Start by reducing the items you own. The process of decluttering is an incredibly helpful exercise for resetting our consumption patterns. You may discover unworn clothing with the price tag still on or five different cooking tools that serve the same purpose. When we own less things, we tend to take better care of our remaining belongings and we might think twice before making new purchases. 

How to Start:

  • Spending freeze. If you have the impulse to buy something, try waiting a week or even a month. Often, after some time has passed, you’ll no longer want it.
  • Declutter: Go through each room in your home and gather items to donate, sell or recycle.
  • Reduce footprint: Try to walk or bike instead of using the car for nearby trips, take shorter showers and remember to turn off the lights when you leave a room. 


Many daily items are designed to be used once before they’re thrown away. And, we can be quick to toss and replace belongings that become damaged or dirty. By reusing a product, even once, you reduce the waste that comes from manufacturing, transporting and packaging a brand new item. Reusing is simply extending a product’s usefulness before it’s recycled, composted or sent to landfill. It’s repairing clothing, shoes, furniture and electronics when they are damaged. It can also be finding creative new uses for items, like turning an empty pasta sauce jar into food storage, a vase or to propagate plants. It’s buying secondhand items from the thrift store, borrowing from neighbors and renting versus buying. And, it’s switching to reusable products like unpaper towels, silicone sandwich bags and a safety razor, when you run out of disposables. 

How to Start:

  • Rent a Dress. For the next special occasion, rent a dress or suit instead of buying something new. It’s a great way to score a designer item for the night and save money.
  • Resole Boots. When your boots become worn, consider taking them to a shoe cobbler to get them polished and resoled. They’ll look good as new. 
  • Veggie Stock. Save veggie scraps like peels and ends to make a delicious homemade stock for soups, stews and sauces. 


Does it surprise you that recycling is one of the least effective ways to reduce waste? If we follow the previous 3 R’s of zero waste, Refuse, Reduce and Reuse, we will actually recycle less, not more. Recycling, while important, often just delays the process of sending a product is sent to landfill. The key is to recycle smarter, following local guidelines carefully and not “wishcycling” things you’re unsure about. It’s estimated that 25% of all recycled items don’t belong in the blue bin, and this contamination can break or damage recycling equipment, slow down operations and cost taxpayers money. On a positive note, glass and metal can be recycled indefinitely without a loss of quality. By comparison, plastic can usually only be downcycled and turned into a lesser quality product before it ends up in a landfill. For example, a plastic water bottle will never be recycled into a new water bottle, but might be turned into carpet fiber or fleece. 

How to Start:

  • Hard to recycle items. Before you toss something, see if you can find a drop off for items not accepted in your curbside recycling program, like plastic bags, batteries, lightbulbs and broken electronics.
  • Review guidelines. Always review local recycling guidelines which can vary city to state. Be sure to clean empty food containers—lots of grease and food residue can contaminate an entire bin or truckload of recyclables, sending them to a landfill. 
  • Buy recycled. Support recycling efforts by buying items made from recycled products, especially plastics. It’s often cheaper to produce plastic products from virgin materials, so it’s important to show companies that there’s a demand for recycled products. 


Food waste is a huge problem in the United States. The U.S. EPA estimates that 30% of household waste can be composted, which is a great way to reduce the size of your trash. But food sent to a landfill eventually decomposes….right? Wrong! Organic materials like food, paper and yard waste get trapped under layers of garbage and lack the proper sunlight and air flow to break down. Instead, they create methane gas—a potent greenhouse gas that’s 25% more destructive than carbon monoxide. Adding a compost bin to your home helps keep organics out of the landfill and returns nutrients back to the Earth. If your local curbside service doesn’t offer a green bin, consider starting one at home. If you lack backyard space, look for a local farmer’s market, community garden or find a drop-off through

How to Start:

  • Beyond food scraps. There are a number of household items, other than food, that can be composted like paper bags, pizza boxes, wood skewers and cotton balls. Always review local guidelines to see what items are acceptable.
  • Freeze smells. If you’re worried about compost stinking up your home, place a bag or container in the freezer to collect daily scraps. 
  • Find what’s right for you. Do some research to find what compost method works best for your household. There are so many to choose from—tumblers, vermicomposting (with worms), bokashi buckets and even electric composters.