The thousand R’s of Sustainability

Reduce, reuse and recycle are commonly referred to as the three R’s of sustainability. These were meant to be hierarchical: above all, reduce the stuff we consume; when we consume stuff, it should be reusable (i.e. drinking from re-usable glass instead of cans or plastic bottles); and if we produce any waste, recycle it instead of contributing towards landfill.

Today our options for waste management seem to be only recycling or land-filling. The system has pushed the two first R’s, reduce and reuse, to ostracism. When growth is a must, regulators and companies have no incentives to do anything that could decrease purchases. And in a world which tells you happiness derives from stuff, neither do people have any inclination to purchase less. Therefore changing the system is imperative if we want a sustainable solution; the Economy for the common good (ECG) accounts for both the environmental and the social limits of our society. I encourage you to find out more and to join the ECG group in Portsmouth! Meanwhile, the minimalist movement provides ideas about how to reduce your needs and obtain value in what you already have. And reusing is easy if you have imagination or internet, which is full of tutorials, blogs and information with original, and very cool and easy ideas.

Despite the current reduction from the three R’s to our lonely and sad last R, waste management and sustainability in general is based in thousands of other R’s, the most common are repair and recover. Luckily, repair is taking off again after many years of being “uncool” and “shabby”. The Repair Café group in Portsmouth fix a mind-boggling number of things so have a look if you need any repairs (or consider lending a hand if you have much-needed tinkering skills). Recover means retrieving energy o materials back from waste that can no longer be used. It starts to be clear that landfill sites will become the mines of the future as their concentration of potentially valuable materials is very high. However, effective and cheap ways to collect and purify these materials are still lacking. Recovering energy back from waste by burning is controversial: on the one hand we cannot keep accumulating waste in the environment, and burning generates much demanded energy; on the other hand, it destroys potentially valuable materials, produces more contamination and diminishes incentives to reduce waste production. A great way to reduce landfill is to rot. Rot (composting) is especially fitting if you have a garden since you can compost your foot waste to fertilise it.

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Estimated decomposition rates of common marine debris items – Source: NOAA – Graphics: Oliver Lüde (Museum für Gestaltung Zürich)

Unfortunately, many still need to realise the problem we have with our consumption system, and any attempt to help others find out about this issue is a step forward. Upon realisation, we need to reflect on its implications, which is when responsibility kicks. Respect for the planet and the living beings inhabiting it helps us to get in motion and start taking action. We can start by refusing to generate waste and reject products and services with unnecessary waste or emissions.

As commented before, re-thinking the system is a must in order to achieve large-scale change. But re-thinking is not only constrained to “big things”, we also need to consider and question our consumption habits and lifestyles: Do I really need this extra jacket? Should I take the car for a short commute? Do I really need to fly to the other side of the world to have fun? Additionally, there is the need to re-design the production system so product design accounts also for the afterlife of products, so that they do not generate waste. Cradle to Cradle (C2C) and Circular Economy share this aim; one of the slogans from C2C is Waste=Food, which means that any waste must be the raw materials for something else. They also advocate for companies to rent out services instead of selling their products (what most people want is to be able to travel or to keep their food cold, not to own a car or a fridge). This way users have the same service (or better) while companies have incentives to design their products so they can easily reuse or up-cycle their materials, and save in the purchase of raw materials. Renting out low-usage products such as tools, toys or children’s clothes is a way to give products more usage while saving money. Thanks to current connectivity means people are now starting to do this. Great!

Many of the R’s already mentioned and some of the ones below involve a re-value of the waste or possible by-products. Recover, as much as repair, rent out or reuse are ways to give extra value to something that seemed like it had none.

Something we can all easily do is replace; switch seemingly equivalent items from bad ones to good ones. Some examples follow: use water-based paints instead of solvent-based paints; use durable items instead of disposable items; replace paper towels with cloth towels; choose environmentally friendly alternatives if available… The list could go on forever.

There are still many other R’s for us to take care of the environment. For example, re-purpose the use of something broken or that you don’t need anymore. Or if you don’t have any good idea, re-sell it or re-gift it if you know someone who might need it. Of course, when people re-sell their stuff is because others re-buy it; use charity shops and second hand shops. One always finds the most original presents there! Or consider buying recycled and green items. Also, relate to other people! Portsmouth Green drinks is a fantastic opportunity for you to relate to like-minded people around here. And do you know this other group…? That one which has something to do with waste… Ah, yes; Zero Waste Portsmouth! I guess you’ve heard about them!

And you can also rotate products such as books, CD’s or DVD’s within your friends. Or re-organise by expiration date the food in your fridge, this way you won’t need to throw food away. You can also re-organise the distribution of your home to make it easier for you to recycle. Or even to make it easy to find your stuff so you don’t buy again things you already own. And speaking about your home, you may benefit from refurbishing it. By saving energy you will save also money. But, of course, you won’t follow any of those suggestions if you forget them… therefore it is very, very important that you remember all this!

Let me insist one last time to re-think our system. It is really very important in order to achieve a big impact. We all should collaborate in imagining a better way for us and the planet and working hard to implement it. Our governments can achieve a lot but we have to lobby them so they regulate better, re-tax disposables and fossil fuels and remediate the environmental harm we are causing. Additionally, a return system needs to be set up that requires producers to take back old products and packaging.

I have to say that I left two very important R’s for the end. Without these it is very difficult to go forward. The first one is research; we need tons of good research for all stages of the production chain, from creating harmless biodegradable products or designing products which do not produce any waste, to finding techniques to recover valuable products from landfills or designing clever incentives to engage people to do the right thing. The other crucial R is rejoice; we need to rejoice for what we are doing, for humanity and for our planet. We need to make all this endeavour joyful, so that you, me and others are more likely to do the effort. We have to have fun doing it! This is the best way to proceed, to enjoy our journey.

Now I challenge you to find other R’s to add to this list. I bet you won’t find many. Do you take the challenge? Comment your ideas below!

Miquel Banchs-Piqué

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