Importance of the 4Rs

Importance of 4Rs - Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

By growing awareness and understanding our environmental impacts on our planet, we can be better informed about where and how to act. A lack of awareness and responsibility has added to polluted land, sea, and air, from a lack of consideration of the environment in managing waste to mass-producing throw-away items to keep up with demand. Thankfully things are changing, and understanding the importance of the 4Rs can undoubtedly help us inform our choices.

By promoting sustainable living in the home and better managing our waste5, we can all make a concerted difference. Especially if we are to all play a role in helping keep our oceans free from plastic waste and reducing our consumption of unnecessary items that can pollute our environment once disposed of.

If you are unfamiliar with the 4 Rs, then they are:

  • Refuse
  • Reduce
  • Reuse
  • Recycle

The 4Rs make for a simple yet effective way to help us consider the items we buy, use and dispose of. When we choose to stop and think about each of the 4Rs, it allows us to consider several important aspects related to our consumption and impactful changes to our behavior. From what we buy to how we can reduce, to what we can reuse, and how we eventually get rid of it.

If we are to make a difference to the environment, then now is the time to identify the importance of the 4Rs.

Importance of the 4Rs - Why Do We Need To Be More Aware?

This is a prominent question that underpins the problems we are facing right now. Science tells us that we are prospectively heading towards a global sequence of events that will change how we live. And impact many of the plant and animal species we share the planet with.

Many of the products we produce cause greenhouse gases, which contribute to global warming. How we needlessly throw things away impacts the oceans and wildlife. A lack of action has led us to where we are today.

If we do not radically transform how, what, and crucially how much we consume and mitigate the worst of our negative impacts on the planet, we could see global temperatures increase by at least 2 degrees by 21004. In fact, the last eight years have been the warmest on record.

Many are now starting to feel the resulting changes of a warming planet. From melting ice caps to more extreme weather. With this comes food shortages, water shortages, and sea levels rising by several feet.

Towns and villages will become submerged, and populations could be wiped out. It is a genuine problem we need to address now because time is running out.

However, we are making improvements. We are now more considerate when it comes to what we buy. We also consider waste differently, and many think more about a sustainable future. Despite substantial progress, we can do more, and this is where the 4Rs can play a significant role in helping guide both our thinking and our actions.

What Are The 4Rs?

The 4Rs, Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle, are a simple way of reminding us how we can make a difference. Each step provides us with a different way of considering waste production, what we use and how we dispose of waste.

Every step has a clear focus on educating us. It helps us to identify the changes we can make. As such, used well, the importance of the 4Rs is born out as an extremely important tool in our fight for a better planet and restorative practices we will need to adopt to prevent the worst impacts of environmental degradation.

1. Refuse

4Rs - Refuse
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We all have the right to choose to refuse wasteful and polluting products. For too long, we have been buying products packaged in a way that can cause environmental harm once we dispose of plastic wraps, boxes, and cartons.

Around 20-25% of food waste relates to its packaging. From way too much plastic to too much cardboard and even oversized packaging. Needless and cost-conscious rather than eco-friendly packaging is causing problems.

Despite this, we can choose to refuse to buy items containing single-use plastics or individually packaged items. Single-use plastic bags are a big problem and one of the reasons why our oceans are suffering. Commonly, we cannot recycle these plastics easily. They are, therefore, a problem for the environment.

Several international policies are either in place or planned to help address the issue. The first policies to limit our use of plastic bags emerged as early as 19911. And further moves are in place to restrict cosmetics containing microbeads that end up in our waterways. The EU is making the biggest policy commitment - by banning many single-use plastics as soon as 2021 to minimize landfill waste and other environmental ills. 

Choosing alternatives to wasteful single-use plastics and other pollutants

Despite this, there’s more to do. To make a stand or change, we now have more options than ever before. Around a trillion plastic shopping bags are still used each year. Additionally, brands sell almost 500 billion plastic bottles globally yearly, causing significant environmental harm

This is just scratching the surface because there is more to consider. Such as one million coffee cups sent to landfills and our use of plastic straws right through to receiving paper bank statements. 

Eventually, our discarded plastics that don't end up in the recycling stream end up either incinerated or in a landfill. Because plastic doesn't biodegrade and takes hundreds of years to degrade into tiny microplastics, it degrades our water quality and soil health and impacts biodiversity. 

Fortunately, we reduce their harm if we refuse to purchase or use these items. So, we can opt to use eco-friendly reusable straws or long-lasting plastic bags and opt out of junk mail. Similarly, we can choose to use our own travel mugs, which coffee shops are now happy to refill. 

Simply bringing along our own returnable or reusable food containers when buying bulk goods from your local zero-waste store or supermarket can make a big difference. And, of course, say no to plastic bottles by ensuring you carry a reusable water bottle. Refuse those packaging peanuts when moving, and use old newspapers or cardboard boxes instead. 

Refusing is the first step towards understanding the importance of the 4Rs and making a difference. Doing so decreases demand and minimizes unnecessary waste. Subsequently, the manufacturers and producers have to then think about less wasteful and sustainable alternatives.

2. Reduce

4Rs Reduce
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If we're going to use less waste, then we need to purchase less. This requires consumers to be more mindful when they do make a purchase and shop with the environmental benefits of minimizing wasteful consumption in mind. 

Therefore, consumers should think about how much they need that particular item. They should also consider how much they will use it.

For decades we have lived in a throw-away society. Instead of repairing items, we throw them away and replace them. There are many ways that we can reduce and that can help to reduce waste significantly.

We should consider reducing our use of coffee cups or throw-away coffee pods, especially when other options are available. Taking inspiration from the zero-waste movement provides plenty of ideas and opportunities to practice zero-waste swaps and alternative zero-waste products, including zero-waste coffee options, that last longer and can be reused. 

Cheap clothing is another prime example. While fast fashion and cheap clothing are perfect for those who cannot afford more expensive items, it is essential to consider how cost-effective they are. It might be worth paying more if they need replacing in several months.

The reality is that people are unaware of what happens to their clothes when they throw them away6. You can reduce the environmental impact of your clothes by choosing sustainable fashion that will last longer and shopping with ethical clothing brands or buying second-hand from thrift stores.

Reducing our use of resources

It’s not just about solid waste, either. We can even reduce the amount of water we waste. A simple water butt can help you to use rainwater instead of water from the tap to water the garden and for activities like washing cars. It offers the same benefits, can save money, and help to reduce water waste

Our consumption of energy also has a knock-on environmental impact. Have a read-up on how you can save electricity at home and school. You’ll not only be helping to reduce demand for non-renewable energy, but you’ll also save money. For your devices, choose rechargeable batteries rather than disposable batteries that harm the environment

When buying for other people, think too about waste reduction. Consider zero-waste gifts. And as we approach the season of cheer, there’s no better time than to think about a zero-waste Christmas. And when gifting, opt for eco-friendly wrapping paper, and reuse scrap paper for note-taking to reduce paper waste. 

And don’t forget that waste also occurs outside the home, and school and business waste reduction are equally important. You can take steps to reduce paper waste in the office and opt for zero-waste office materials. While for back to school in the new year, grab eco-friendly school supplies to set the younger ones in your family off without the plastic waste. 

So the next step in realizing the importance of the 4Rs is reducing waste, and it is all about making a conscious effort to look at the bigger picture. We are all too quick to throw things away without a single thought about what happens to waste. To reduce waste, we need to reduce what we buy and use and consider limiting ourselves to essentials. It is as simple as that.

3. Reuse

4Rs Reuse
Photo by Bernard Hermant on Unsplash

Reducing waste is about more than just reducing what you purchase. It is about considering what you can reuse. This means not putting it in the waste but using it for another purpose.

When we stop to think about the waste we generate and how we could reuse a lot of what we buy, it is clear that we can make a difference.

This can range from the smallest items, such as reusing jars to store pens or screws, to repurposing wrapping paper at Christmas or Birthdays.

These are more useful than many realize and can be used as makeshift eco-friendly lunch boxes or to store crayons for children. We can even reuse plastic and turn them into eco-bricks that we can use to build entire buildings2.

One of the biggest culprits of waste is fast-food establishments, with packaging having a recovery rate of just 29%3. Many will serve up their food in plastic containers with lids. 

While we can also take every step to minimize food waste in the home, inevitably, scraps and leftovers still add up. Simply adding organic waste to a home compost bin means that, given a bit of time, it'll end up as manure and nutrients for your garden. Sometimes people include a 5th R here - Rot - to ensure composting is part of the approach. 

This is about being innovative and forward-thinking. It is surprising how many items can be reused and repurposed.

To add to this, we can also avoid using items completely and purchase ready-made reusable items. This can include coffee cups, cutlery, and even shopping bags. The more we reuse, the less we need to produce. This prevents waste and reduces manufacturing processes and emissions at the same time.

Reusing and repairing fashion and devices

One of the biggest ways of reusing items is through upcycling. People are now becoming increasingly creative, so we can take tired, worn items and upcycle clothing into beautiful pieces we can reuse, or host a clothing swap to give old items a new home. It is this kind of clever thinking that can make a difference.

Sometimes you might find another R mentioned - “repair.” Like re-use, repairing items can extend their life when they become broken or worn out. This is especially true of electronic devices, which can result in e-waste

Whereas we can find ourselves tempted to upgrade to the newest model, repairing a cracked mobile phone screen can save money and means one less device needs to be manufactured in the first place.

Furthermore, people sometimes swap reuse for repurposing. The alternative take on the 5Rs - Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Repurpose, Recycle remains just as effective. 

4. Recycle

4Rs Recycle
Photo by Michael Jin on Unsplash

When it comes to waste management, recycling items is the final option and the final R as we look at the importance of the 4Rs. Instead of throwing away clothes, you can donate them to charity. Do make sure that you sort and clean all items before recycling to increase the likelihood they actually do, in fact, get recycled.

To ensure we correctly dispose of items, recycling is the first option wherever possible when our products reach the end of their useful life, and we can no longer reuse them for a different purpose. Along with this, it also means that we can repurpose items.

We realize the considerable problem plastic waste causes for the environment, but when the majority becomes recycled, we can reuse it in other ways. Recycling programs make it possible for bottle tops to become car batteries and reusable plastic bags, while we can turn plastic containers into toys. 

The possibilities are almost endless, and recycling technology is constantly improving, which is a real positive in our quest to reduce waste. When buying new, always choose items made from recyclable materials - our guide to the different types of plastic waste is helpful to understand the recycling labels used on most products. 

However, various items can’t be recycled, and some can even contaminate the recycling process making things worse. As such, it's always worth checking with your local recycling program about what they will and won’t take to maximize the impact of your recycling efforts. 

Together We Can Make A Difference

It is no longer enough to generate waste and throw it away without a care. We need to take responsibility for our actions. Conservation practices we can all relatively easily undertake in the home are vital to turning around the environmental problems we’ve caused while working on setting things right.

Sometimes it's as simple as refusing single-use plastic in favor of reusable water bottles and ensuring we take along our reusable or returnable containers. Or reusing food scraps and organic waste for compost to create nutrient-rich fertilizer. Taking lessons from minimal living and zero waste may further inspire our choices, alongside a pragmatic approach to improvement as opposed to perfection.

The truth is, for centuries, we have been creating needless amounts of waste. This waste is causing havoc with wildlife. It is killing animals, altering food chains, and causing problems with global warming.

The future of our environment is in our hands. We can take control of our destiny, but it requires a considered approach. When we begin to think about what we buy and what we reuse and recycle, we can make a difference. This proves that the importance of the 4Rs is more prominent than ever before.

It will take a joint effort, but we must do this together. Remember, Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.

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1Dirk Xanthos, Tony R. Walker, International policies to reduce plastic marine pollution from single-use plastics (plastic bags and microbeads): A review, Marine Pollution Bulletin, Volume 118, Issues 1–2, 2017, Pages 17-26, ISSN 0025-326X, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.marpolbul.2017.02.048.
2Ashraf Mansour Habib Mansour, Subhi A. Ali, Reusing waste plastic bottles as an alternative sustainable building material, Energy for Sustainable Development, Volume 24, 2015, Pages 79-85, ISSN 0973-0826, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.esd.2014.11.001.
3Challenges in packaging waste management: A case study in the fast food industry. Aarnio, Teija (2006-08-18)"
4Collins, M., R. Knutti, J. Arblaster, J.-L. Dufresne, T. Fichefet, P. Friedlingstein, X. Gao, W.J. Gutowski, T. Johns, G. Krinner, M. Shongwe, C. Tebaldi, A.J. Weaver and M. Wehner, 2013: Long-term Climate Change: Projections, Commitments and Irreversibility. In: Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Stocker, T.F., D. Qin, G.-K. Plattner, M. Tignor, S.K. Allen, J. Boschung, A. Nauels, Y. Xia, V. Bex and P.M. Midgley (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA.
5Barr, S. (2004), What we buy, what we throw away and how we use our voice. Sustainable household waste management in the UK. Sust. Dev., 12: 32-44. doi:10.1002/sd.226
6Birtwistle, G. and Moore, C. (2007), "Fashion clothing – where does it all end up?", International Journal of Retail & Distribution Management, Vol. 35 No. 3, pp. 210-216. https://doi.org/10.1108/09590550710735068
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