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Reduce, reuse, recycle! In this lesson, we will explore the three Rs of reducing solid waste. We will also investigate examples of each of the three Rs, and how people can do their part to help reduce solid waste.

The Three Rs

There is a common mantra that many of us were taught as children but do not always think of on a daily basis. The mantra is reduce, reuse, recycle, otherwise known as the three Rs. Over the last half century, the amount of waste created per person in the United States has almost doubled.

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The concept and promotion of the three Rs was created to help combat the drastic increase in solid waste production.

Reduce

Let’s start with the first R, which is reduce. The three Rs are really a waste management hierarchy with reduce being the most important strategy.

In order to reduce the amount of waste produced, it is essential to focus on the source of the waste, or where the waste is originally coming from. Source reduction is when products are designed, manufactured, packaged, and used in a way that limits the amount or toxicity of waste created.The first goal of source reduction is simply to reduce the overall amount of waste that is produced. The second goal is to conserve resources by not using raw, virgin materials. In other words, by following source reduction, fewer raw materials will have to be used to produce products.

Some common industrial examples of source reduction include the creation of merchandise using fewer materials. For example, the waste created from disposable diapers, which has contributed a large amount of volume to landfills over the years, has been reduced by making diapers with 50% less paper pulp. As technology increased, absorbent gel was created that was able to replace the paper pulp.Aluminum cans are also a good example of source reduction because they are now made with 1/3 less aluminum than they were twenty years ago. Both of these examples not only reduce the amount of overall waste created, but they also conserve the natural resources, aluminum and paper pulp, that are used in the manufacturing.Although most examples of source reduction take place on the manufacturing side, there are several actions an individual can take to reduce the overall amount of solid waste they produce. Some examples include sending emails instead of tradition mail, canceling unwanted catalogs subscriptions, and fixing products instead of throwing them out.

Reuse

The second most important strategy of the three Rs is to reuse, which is when an item is cleaned and the materials are used again. This concept can be difficult because we currently live in a world with many disposable items, and it takes some imagination and creativity to see how items can be reused.There are two main ways that the concept of reusing can be applied to reduce waste. First, when purchasing a new item, you can look for a product that can be used repeatedly instead of a version that is only used once and thrown away. The second way to reuse is to buy an item secondhand, borrow, or rent an item, instead of buying the product new.

Although the items you reuse may eventually end up being waste, by reusing them you are reducing the overall amount of waste produced by giving the item a second function and expanding the typical lifespan of the item. The process of reusing can also be fun because it gives you the opportunity to take an old or used item and turn it into something new to you.There are many ways that you, as an individual, can reuse items. Some common examples include shopping at thrift stores or yard sales for second hand items. You can also donate items you no longer need to thrift stores so that someone else can use them. Another common method of reuse is to bring your own reusable shopping bags instead of using plastic or paper bags provided at the store.

In addition to individual actions, there are also some industries that implement the process of reuse. Some smaller beverage companies use glass bottles to hold their products and promote consumers returning the bottles. The company then cleans and refills the bottles for sale. It is estimated that the average glass beverage bottle can make about 15 round-trips between the manufacturer and the consumer before it must be recycled due to damage.

Recycle

The third R in the hierarchy is for recycle, which in terms of waste is the reprocessing of disposed materials into new and useful products. Items that are commonly recycled include glass, plastic, paper, and metal.

When recycled, some of these materials are used to create more of the same original product, while other materials are used to create entirely different products after recycling.In the 1960s, the United States only recycled around 6% of waste! As of 2010, the United States recycled approximately 25% of the municipal solid waste produced. Although this percentage may seem small in comparison to other countries, such as Switzerland and Japan that recycle around 50% of waste, the current amount recycled in the United States is a drastic improvement.As an individual, one of the most beneficial activities you can do to increase your rate of recycling is to designate a bin just for recyclables.

Inconvenience is a large reason that people do not recycle. By creating a bin for recyclables, you will be more inclined to clean your item and recycle it if it has a place to go. Also, learning more about what items are recyclable and educating others on recycling are great ways to help increase the rate of recycling.

Lesson Summary

Now, let’s review the three Rs, which are reduce, reuse, and recycle. At the top of this waste management hierarchy is the concept of source reduction, which is when products are designed, manufactured, packaged, and used in a way that limits the amount or toxicity of waste created. The second R in the hierarchy is reuse, which is when an item is cleaned and the materials are used again.The first two Rs, reduce and reuse, are considered more important or preferred methods because they have to do with the prevention of creating waste.

These two strategies make it possible to not only reduce the amount of waste produced, but also conserve raw materials and the energy and money that goes into manufacturing.Although very beneficial, recycling is the third option and third tier of the hierarchy because it is a strategy for dealing with waste once it has been created. In terms of waste management, to recycle is the reprocessing of disposed materials into new and useful products. When items are recycled they are either made into the same type of product or changed into a different type of product.Although the three Rs, reduce, reuse, and recycle, are good strategies for limiting the amount of waste that goes into landfills, more effort is required to have a larger impact.

People need to be informed and educated about these strategies so that they can make more well-informed decisions as consumers and waste producers, and hopefully make decisions that will benefit the environment as a whole.

Learning Outcomes

Working your way through this lesson will help you meet the following goals:

  • Identify the three Rs of reducing solid waste and examples of each
  • Discuss how people can do their part to impact solid waste reduction

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