The 5 commandments: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle & Rot

At first is was just reduce, reuse, recycle – but this has now grown to:

Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and Rot.

The order of those three steps is significant, because that is the priority they should each be given to minimise your waste output. Here’s why.


REFUSE: If you refuse packaging when you buy goods, you are making a statement that packaging is an unnecessary waste. (Hopefully this will feed back to the retailers, who will re-look at their wasteful systems and improve them – after all, there are possible savings to make.) You are also reducing the amount of waste you personally generate and then have to deal with. Here are a few ideas on how to refuse waste:

  • Do as Bea Johnson from the Zero Waste Home does, and take bags and glass containers with you on shopping trips, and buy bulk goods that can be put directly into your own, reusable, carriers.
  • Food Lovers Market promotes this with some of their goods. For example, it sells glass bottles and the olive oil separately, at a refilling station. This way you can re-use one bottle repeatedly, instead of buying a new bottle each time you need more olive oil.
  • Shopping at Farmers Markets or directly from farms often allows you to buy fruit and veg that are not in polystyrene and cling wrap. I buy a weekly veggie box from Wensleydale Farm, and everything comes  loose or in brown bags, and put in a cardboard box that I return each week so it can be reused.
  • Having reusable shopping bags is another simple way to avoid needing plastic shopping bags each time you go shopping.
  • Don’t order bottled water at the restaurant – ask for tap water. And when you go out, take your own water with you, in a re-usable bottle.

REDUCE: Try to reduce buying things you don’t really need or want, or which will have a short shelf life. Reduce buying things that cannot be reused, or at worst recycled. This is another effective way to avoid creating waste. For example:

  • An important one we often overlook is only buying enough fresh fruit and veg that you can eat, before it all goes off – and then actually eating it! Uneaten food is probably more of a waste problem in the US than in SA, but it should still be avoided (read this and this, for the big picture). Of course, if you have too much food to eat, you can easily pass it on to someone else before it spoils.
  • Rather than having many products for different things, try to simplify your life with fewer products that can do many things. For example, lemon juice, bicarb of soda and vinegar can clean most things in your home. Using them also reduces the number of harmful chemicals in your home.
  • Opt for quality items that are durable and will last for a long time, rather than cheap goods which need to be replaced more often.

REUSE: Some waste simply cannot be avoided – so the next best thing is to find another purpose for it, rather than throwing it away. For instance:

  • Old clothing can be passed on if it’s in good condition, or if it is badly worn you can turn it into cleaning cloths.
  • The Dowe Egberts glass coffee jars make really lovely storage containers for food in the pantry.
  • I heard of a lady who used old chip packets to create insulation blankets for geysers. (This is such a clever idea, as it also has the benefit of helping to reduce your electricity bill.)

An advantage with reuse is that it also mean you don’t need to buy some of the things you would otherwise need (cloths, jars, etc).

RECYCLE: While recycling is good to do, it should only be necessary after you have tried to reduce and reuse as much as you can. Types of recycling include:

  • Plastic, paper, glass and tin. If you want to find a drop off point close to you, for almost any type of recyclable, check out
  • Electronic appliances can be dropped off at the big skips outside Builders Warehouse, so they can be stripped down and reused as best as possible.

ROT: Last but certainly not least is to compost your organic waste. I think of this as another, fancier, form of recycling, one where nutrients can be put back into the ecosystem.

  • We’ve dug a hole for our food scraps and garden waste, to make compost for our garden. A bonus this year is that the compost I put in my veggie garden has seeds in it, which germinated into beautiful, healthy gem squash and butternut plants.
  • You can also try a Bokashi bin, which speeds up the composting process with its activator, and also makes it suitable for food waste that is not normally compostable (such as garlic, citrus, bones and cooked food waste).

Any waste that cannot be refused, reduced, reused, recycled or made to rot ends up as waste that goes to landfill. We are currently running out of land to bury our waste in (as explained here). This isn’t ideal. Besides the fact we are filling the earth with trash, landfills can also contribute to pollution, if not managed carefully. Plus we are essentially throwing resources away – and our planet does not have an infinite supply of resources to offer us. This is why landfill should really be a last resort after you have exhausted all of the other possibilities.

Have you tried following these commandments? What did you struggle with, or what advice can you share with readers?


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