The 5 Rs of Zero Waste

Zero waste is an ever-growing trend around the world, and with more and more people striving to live a sustainable lifestyle. But what does zero waste actually mean?

A zero waste lifestyle is one that aims to produce no waste at all. This means that anything you consume or use will either be reused or recycled, or have the ability to be quickly composted so as to avoid putting things in landfill. With this type of lifestyle, it’s much easier to reduce your carbon footprint and help the environment.

The idea behind a zero waste lifestyle is not just about reducing your personal impact on the environment but also about taking steps towards sustainability for future generations.

The zero waste lifestyle was partly popularised by Bea Johnson’s popular book, Zero Waste Home, where she provides practical and inspirational advice to help reduce your environmental footprint. In it, she outlines the principles, known as ‘the 5 Rs’, to becoming zero waste.

What Are The 5 Rs?

The 5 Rs of zero waste are Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, and Rot – in that order. Refuse and Reduce what you don’t need, Reuse your disposable items, Recycle what can’t be refused, and Rot the items that can be composted.


The first of the 5 Rs is perhaps the most challenging. It is simply saying “no” to things that you ultimately don’t need. Refusing to buy and consume things stems from small acts of consumption: such as taking novelty freebies, to regularly buying using single-use disposable plastic items like straws.

It can be socially awkward saying no to complimentary or seemingly everyday things, but Bea Johnson explains that being proactive is often the best way to avoid having to refuse something. As an example, if you like to get a coffee before work, ensure you always bring a reusable cup as opposed to using a disposable one.

Start with simple things: ask for email receipt rather than a paper one, and always bring a canvas bag with you so there’s no need to take a new plastic bag. If you need midweek groceries, try finding a nearby zero waste shop. A zero waste or plastic-free store should only stock items that don’t have plastic wrapping and can be disposed of sustainably. Learn more about how to shop at a zero waste store if you’ve never done so!


The second R is about simplifying your lifestyle and your consumption. Like refusal, reduction is the act of questioning what is and isn’t an essential purchase. Johnson describes reducing as a more “individual affair”, as everyone will ultimately have their own life challenges to overcome to reduce their waste. Many people cannot feasibly drive less if they live rurally, or downsize if they have a large family.

But in the context of zero waste, “reduce” also refers to escaping the trap of hyper-consumption: the idea that the more you own and buy, the happier you’ll be. See South Park’s Margaritaville episode as a satirical example of this!

Letting go of possessions that don’t serve any purpose is part of the process of reducing your waste- perhaps you could donate that blender that you’ve never used…

Keep a note of the items you use on a weekly or monthly basis and you’ll soon know what you do and don’t need. Put simply, the fewer items you bring into your home, the less waste you’ll produce.


The third R, Reuse, is about switching your currently disposable items for items that can be used permanently without needing to be thrown away. Not all items will stand the test of time, so try to repair items that have become worn to extend their usefulness.

As an example, instead of buying water from a shop, you could take a refillable metal bottle with you, which actually meets the criteria of Refuse, Reduce, and Reuse.

Another example of reusing is by purchasing second-hand, or used items. Online stores like Ebay and Thrift+, and high street charities or antique shops all sell perfectly good items that can be reused instead of being put into landfill.


Recycling is considered the last resort for people living a zero waste lifestyle. The crux of recycling is that it isn’t sustainable, and this fact isn’t widely known.

There is no doubt that recycling is better than sending waste to landfill. Recycling items saves natural resources, reduces the amount of energy needed to create new products, and helps to encourage a culture of reuse.

However, a study in 2015 analysing all mass-produced plastics ever manufactured showed that only 9% of it has been recycled.

The world’s current waste management practises are not sustainable enough for recycling to combat increasing amounts of waste, which is why recycling is a last resort.


The fifth R is is about decomposing your organic waste. Composting will help you dispose of your waste naturally, instead of putting your organic waste in landfill. The benefit of composting is the nutrient-filled fertiliser that you will be able to use on your plants.

Remember, compostable is different to biodegradable, so always think about whether what you purchase can be biodegraded at home.

There are a variety of methods to start composting. You could even create your own outdoor compost bin out of reclaimed pallets or wood. There are even methods of composting indoors, so that you can avoid putting your kitchen waste in the refuse bin.

Using the 5 Rs

By using the 5 Rs, cutting your household waste and reducing you consumption will become much more simple. All 5 of the Rs cover the prevention of waste, and a framework for minimising consumption.

Omar Agor-Wood
Omar Agor-Wood

Omar is a digital marketer by day for one of the UK's largest environmental consultancy companies, and is writing like the world depends on it for Pick Ethical at night. He has a passion for hiking, bouldering, and making a fuss of his dog.

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