Ask Eartha: What are alternate ways to focus my waste reduction efforts? |

Ask Eartha: What are alternate ways to focus my waste reduction efforts?

Zero-waste principals incorporate five Rs and serve as a reference for strategies to reducing waste. The five Rs are: refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle and rot.
Getty Images / Moment RF | Moment RF

Dear Eartha,

As I learn more about recycling, I’ve realized that most items are actually recycled into materials of lesser quality, and they’ll probably still end up in a landfill someday. Are there other ways to focus my waste reduction efforts other than recycling?

-Pam, Frisco

We all grew up knowing the three Rs: reduce, reuse, recycle. This formula has become the model for how we deal with waste in the 21st century. But as the global population grows and the climate changes, it has become apparent that we need to alter our modern habits and move toward lifestyles that have a smaller impact on the environment. And to start, we need to adhere to the three Rs in the proper order. That is, we must first reduce our consumption, then reuse what we can, and finally recycle what cannot be reused. We can’t ignore the first two steps and let recycling make us feel good about our consumption levels, because it’s an imperfect solution.

Taking waste reduction a step further is the concept of zero waste. More people, businesses and organizations all over the world are adopting a zero-waste philosophy when it comes to waste production and disposal. Zero-waste policies and practices seek to minimize waste through maximizing recycling, reducing consumption and designing products made to be reused, repaired or recycled back into nature or the marketplace. Zero-waste principals incorporate five – yes FIVE – Rs and serve as a reference for strategies to reducing waste. The five Rs are: refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle and rot.

Let’s look more in depth at the five Rs:

• Refuse anything you do not need. This can range from a plastic bag at a retail store to swag that you get at an event. Typically, free items are created from plastic that cannot be recycled or reused, and will end up cluttering up a junk drawer in your house. Ask yourself, “Do I really need this?”

• Reduce overall consumption by questioning all your significant purchases and resisting impulse buying.

• Reuse what you consume by coming up with creative ways to give new life to products or packaging in your home.

• Recycle only what cannot be refused, reduced, reused or rotted (composted). Recycling should be a last resort for waste — but it’s better than sending items to the landfill!

• Rot (or compost) all food scraps and yard waste. This can be done a few ways — through backyard composting or by enrolling in HC3’s Food Scrap Recycling drop-off program which allows participants to compost up to 10 gallons of food waste a week.

Recyclable products are not all created equal. Both glass and aluminum are known as infinite recyclables. These materials can be recycled over and over without degrading the quality of the original material. This is true recycling. However, paper, cardboard, other metals and plastics degrade as they are recycled. The new products created after these materials are recycled can typically be only used once before disposal. This is known as “downcycling.” For instance, No. 1 plastic, once recycled, can be turned into either fleece or building insulation. But there is no good way to recycle either fleece or insulation, so these products will be discarded once they’ve reached the end of their useful lives.

One final note, High Country Conservation Center has an opportunity available for any individual, group or community interested in embracing the 5Rs. HC3 has a three-season greenhouse for sale in Frisco, and rather than demolishing and landfilling the structure, they’d like to see it have another life. The greenhouse promotes waste reduction by encouraging local food production, reusing the structure itself and creating a place for rot by incorporating an in-house compost pile or system. Anyone interested in purchasing the greenhouse should contact HC3 at 970-668-5703.

Thank you, Pam, for working to reduce your waste load. The average American produces 4.5 pounds of trash a day, and many of the products we consume contribute to deforestation, water pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. By taking steps to minimize the waste you produce, you truly have an impact in the local community and the world.

Ask Eartha Steward is written by the staff at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation. Submit questions to Eartha at

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