The 5 R’s of Zero Waste
Thursday, November 14, 2019 5:10 PM

zero_waste_hierarchy.jpg
One version of the "zero waste hierarchy"

Recycling and composting are fine. But to really reduce our trash footprint, we need to cut back on what we acquire in the first place, and change how we acquire it. Then we’ll have less to throw away later.

That’s the advice a co-founder of Zero Waste Saint Paul gave District 10’s Environment Committee on Nov. 13. For every bag of trash a household throws out, Kristina Mattson says, 70 more bags previously were created “upstream” –- before we even get our hands on anything.

From top to bottom
That’s why refusing to bring useless stuff into our homes is the most important step individuals and families can take in moving toward zero waste, Mattson says. “Refuse” (accent on the “Re”) is at the top of the “zero waste hierarchy” –- an inverted pyramid of 5 R’s:

  • Refuse to buy what we do not need
  • Reduce what we do need
  • Reuse or repair what we do buy
  • Recycle what we cannot refuse, reduce, reuse, or repair
  • Rot –- compost the rest

The more we change our habits at the high end of the hierarchy, Mattson says, the smaller our trash footprint, the smaller our carbon footprint, and the less we even need the lower end of the hierarchy at all.

Even the overall benefits of recycling are less than most people think, she points out, because recycling requires fuel for curbside pick-up and energy at the sorting facility. Plus -- given the ever-shifting marketplace for recycled materials -- there is no guarantee that what we put into our recycling cart does not end up in a landfill or incinerator.

Don’t let that food go to waste
Eliminating single-use packaging and eating all the food we buy are two of the most practical steps we can take, Mattson says.

A typical household wastes 40 percent of the food it buys, research shows. That creates more trash and composting, plus wastes all the energy, water, and materials that went into growing the food. Throwing away food is throwing away money, too -- to the tune of $30 a month for an individual, $1,500 a year for a family of four.

Realistic meal planning is key, Mattson says. Three tips:

  • Buy only the food your life allows you to cook and eat before the food goes bad
  • Eat leftovers before you cook something else (or freeze your leftovers for a low-hassle meal later)
  • Use recipes that use up the ingredients already sitting in your refrigerator before you shop for new meals

Moving beyond disposable

Single-use packaging is a curse of recent marketing, Mattson points out. Many of us are getting better at cutting back -- using reusable water bottles, bringing our own travel mugs for coffee, bringing cloth grocery bags rather than using paper or plastic, refilling growlers at a local taproom, using mason jars or other containers from home to pack food and spices from bulk bins at co-ops and other grocers.

The next step is to expand that mindset to more parts of our life, so we ween ourselves from disposables whenever possible. More advice from Mattson:

  • Previous generations were more accomplished at repairing, sharing, and borrowing, but there is a small revival in those lost skills, practices, and principles. Examples include county-sponsored fix-it clinics, adult education classes on clothing and relatively simple home repairs, and tool libraries. “We need to be more like our grandmas,” she says.
  • For gifts, buy experiences rather than stuff.
  • Mix your own vinegar-based, all-purpose household cleaner.
  • Donate, don’t dump: Utilize the growing network of re-use and resale shops and organizations. Donate what you no longer need; if you need something else, buy it used, just like we do with automobiles.
  • When you eat out, bring your own carry-out container. Sometimes you can do this at deli counters and carry-out counters, too.

Download Mattson’s presentation slides from the right column. They don’t have the commentary and context, but they do give more details and ideas on how to move toward zero waste.

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