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“Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.” The phrase has been so widely used, you probably don’t remember where you heard it first. Maybe you were in a primary school science class, perched on a desk chair with your Keds dangling.
It’s printed on the back of your granola bar wrapper, on the label of your reusable water bottle, and at the top of the city recycling ordinance stuck to the side of your fridge.
You’ve heard it so many times it may have begun to lose its meaning.
But the phrase became popular for a reason — it’s a concise, easy-to-remember summary of how to live a more eco-friendly lifestyle. And when you peel back the layers of those three simple words, there’s a lot to delve into.
The precise origins of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle is widely debated by historians, but we know it emerged sometime in the mid-1970s.
Along with the environmental movement of the 70’s came the concept of a ‘waste hierarchy’. A waste hierarchy is the idea that while there are many actions that are eco-friendly, they are not all equal.
And that is an important concept: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle are in priority-specific order.
The most powerful, impactful, and sustainable action you can take is to reduce.
Over the course of the next month, we are going to dive deeper into the meaning behind each of the 3 R’s. Today we are going to focus on Reducing.
The beginning of all waste is creation. Everything that has ever been made will eventually return to our earth in some form or another. Biodegradable materials can break down and merge back into the cycles of our ecosystem — but materials like plastic have a nearly infinite lifespan. Even when it does “degrade”, it does not fully merge with nature but becomes “microplastics” that move throughout the ecosystem and cause harm.
The environmental impact of every product is threefold:
Every part of the process produces waste and greenhouse gas emissions. Simply “reducing” what you use completely eliminates that environmental burden.
You can see how powerful it is.
Reducing can be simply not buying items you don’t need. But it can also take the form of reducing travel, reducing electricity use, and reducing your agricultural impact (all of which we dive deep on in our Complete Guide to Sustainable Living in 2022).
Today we’ll focus a little closer to home with ways to reduce the single-use (read: waste-producing) products you use day-to-day.
If you’ve ever conducted a trash audit (more on that in this blog), then you are probably aware that one of the most waste-producing things we do is clean. It’s kind of ironic, right?
But luckily, there are some simple ways to reduce your routine, and still get a great clean.
Though we are generally a fan of innovation, this is one area where the old-fashioned versions got it right. Check out these classic eco-friendly fixes:
Single-use wipes, dust cloths, and disposable mop pads may be convenient, but they create unnecessary waste where a traditional mop, rag, or duster does a superb job. The ability to wash and reuse your cleaning supplies doesn’t just save resources, it’ll also save you money!
Avoid dangerous chemicals, and make your own nontoxic cleaners! You can also reuse your spray bottles to reduce waste. Try a few of these recipes:2
All Purpose Cleaner
Toilet Bowl Cleaner
You’d be really surprised how well some of these homemade versions work. Vinegar is a natural disinfectant and baking soda is a powerful deodorizer. The combination of the two creates a fizzy reaction that cuts through grease and grime.
Added bonus: You won’t be breathing in all those toxic fumes (some of which are known carcinogens! Hello phthalates, formaldehyde, and sulfuric acid…)1
This one might not seem as obvious at first, but if you do need cleaning products, opt for ones with less water in them.
Liquid soaps and detergents are often 85% water — this means they require heavier duty packaging that is less eco-friendly. It also means they take up more space and weigh more, which adds to transportation emissions.
Try reducing the liquid content with dry alternatives (preferably in biodegradable packaging). Use bar soap rather than body wash or foaming hand soap. Try powdered dishwasher detergent. Shampoo and conditioners can be found in bar form, and laundry detergent now comes in lightweight, nontoxic sheets.
Added bonus: many of these liquid-free products are much easier to travel with.
Again this comes back to reducing all the resources required to produce your food in the first place. The more we are conservative with our food consumption, the less impact we make on the planet.
Of course meal planning is an excellent way to reduce your food waste, but it can be tricky and requires a lot of foresight and organization. And, you know, sometimes your bullet journal ends up at the bottom of a week’s worth of mail and your grocery list is lost somewhere in the laundry… we get it.
But if you accidentally overbuy something (or you cave to those Chinese takeout cravings instead of making that casserole you planned on) you might end up with some extra food in the fridge at the end of the week. Rather than letting it go to waste, extend the life of your veggies with some of the following tips:
Broth is a great way to use up all the little scraps that you cut off your vegetables — including root ends, peels, and trimmings. You can also throw in any leftover meat, bones, or fat. Toss it all in a pot, and add water until it’s just covered. Add some salt, pepper, herbs, garlic, and bay leaves. Let it simmer for about half an hour.
The resulting broth can simply be skimmed and strained and will save in the freezer for months. Speaking of…
Foods don’t often thaw to exactly their pre-frozen state, but there are creative ways to use frozen foods that are easy and delicious.
We recommend presclicing bread before putting it in the freezer, then taking out individual portions when you want toast or a pressed sandwich. (Psst: If your bread or bagels have already gone stale, try making croutons or use them for soup toppers like on French onion. You can also use stale tortillas to make homemade chips.)
Frozen fruits can be blended in smoothies or added straight to your yogurt or oatmeal for some added sweetness.
Frozen bananas and zucchini make great baked breads or pancakes.
You can also chop up herbs and freeze them in oil or butter to make fragrant cooking bases. Try using an ice cube tray for single meal portions.
Pickling is not as hard as it sounds. You can “quick pickle” nearly any fresh vegetable with a solution of equal parts vinegar and water. (White, cider, wine, and rice vinegar are all good options). If you like, add some spices or herbs such as garlic, peppercorns, dill, or thyme.
Even if you don’t go through the whole process of canning, the resulting “pickles” can be kept fresh for up to 2 months in your fridge. (Ahh, the power of vinegar).
The internet is teeming with recommendations on how to reduce your waste, so this is just the tip of the iceberg. Follow some of these guidelines, and you'll be well on your way with the first of the 3 R’s.
Of course, how you reduce is very specific to your own lifestyle, so it’s important to examine your habits to determine what areas need improvement.
A great way to reduce what you buy is to reuse what you already have. Stay tuned for our next blog which will delve into the second of the 3 R’s — Reuse.
Don’t forget to check out our blog on “The Big 3” for more impactful ways to Reduce this year.