Understanding The 5 R’s of Sustainability and Zero Waste Living

a glass jar full of water and carrot sticks

The five Rs of sustainability, refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle, rot, are ways you can reduce your waste and use up what you have to help reduce your footprint.

Estimated Read Time: 7 minutes

If we ask you to think of marketing slogans, which ones come to mind? A bunch of cereal ads for sure, but how about Reduce, Reuse, Recycle?

What began as a catchy phrase to encourage environmentally friendly behavior has lasted over 50 years with no sign of slowing down.

But it’s time to bring the 3 R’s into the 21 century. By doing this we add a couple more ‘R’s’ so they become the 5 R’s of Sustainability: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rot.

Keep reading to explore the importance of the 5 R’s of sustainability — first coined by zero waste pioneer Bea Johnson — and how you can incorporate them into your own zero waste journey!

blue recycle bin with recycling logo

Photo by Sigmund on Unsplash

What Are The 5 R’s Of Sustainability: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Repurpose, Recycle, Rot

The 5 R’s of sustainability are (in this order) as follows:

Refuse — Just Say No. Prevent unnecessary waste from coming into your life.

Reduce — Get clear about what you actually need to live and be happy — and stick to it.

Reuse — Take a good hard look at all the disposables you’re using; get creative on giving things a new life.

Recycle — The recycling system is broken. Get clear about what you’re actually disposing of.

Rot — Compost! There are options depending on your lifestyle that can help you responsibly dispose of your food waste.

Why Are The 5 R’s Important To The Zero Waste Movement?

waste management

Photo by zibik on Unsplash

The 5 R’s of Sustainability are important to the zero waste movement because they help us take a good hard look at the waste we’re creating and provide a plan to help reduce some of that waste.

The waste management and recycling system wasn’t designed for so much stuff from so many people.

The 5 R’s can help us reduce our waste and rethink the habits that cause excess waste in the first place.

How to Implement The 5 R’s of Sustainability to Live More Zero Waste

glass jars filled with beans and grain

Photo by Denise Johnson on Unsplash

The zero waste movement is full of images of symmetrical jars neatly lined up in beautiful pantries paired with months worth of trash tidily contained within a mason jar.

Whether that image inspires or terrifies you, we have a bit of a different take. We think living a more zero waste and sustainable lifestyle is messy.

  • It’s cabinets filled with different sized jars.
  • It’s a mismatch of the new and the old.
  • It’s not always plastic free (hello passed down Tupperware and laundry baskets that never break).

As Anne-Marie Bonneau says, “We don't need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly.”

So how do you implement the 5 R’s? You observe, evaluate, pick one or two things, move slowly, and keep trying even after you mess up.

Read on to explore each step with examples!

What Do The 5 R’s Of Sustainability Mean


Saying no isn’t always easy. We don't want to come across as insulting or rude — but creating less waste starts with bringing home less waste. Start with the small things and work your way up as it becomes easier! You might even be able to say no in other areas of your life.

For Starters, Say No To:

  • Plastic straws.
  • Disposable cutlery when possible, plates, and cups.
  • Promo/marketing freebies you won’t use: plastic cups, flash drives, pens (unless you need one or it’s a really good one), visors, etc.
  • Business cards — There are other options like using your phone, using a digital business card.
  • Plastic-wrapped produce.

Ask yourself: Will I use this? Will this bring me any value? How long will this last?


Reducing your waste happens in a couple of ways.

Reduce What’s Coming In

Get clear on your essentials — what do you need and what makes you happy? Then stick to them.

You don’t have to be a minimalist if you don’t want to be, but:

  • Do you need 8 different kinds of spatulas?
  • Is there something you replace often that you could find a way to replace less?
  • Make a list before you go to any kind of store to avoid unnecessary purchases
  • Avoid mindless shopping splurges (although Instagram doesn’t make that easy)

Reduce What You Have

This is NOT a message to purge all your belongings and start over. When you come across items you no longer want or need, thrift, donate, and give it away before disposing of it.

The most sustainable thing you can do is use what you already have.

Ask yourself: Do I really need this? Will this last me a long time? Is there another way I can use this?

You might also be interested in: the everything stick, refillable dish soap bar, multi-use balmie in zero waste makeup.


cactus planted in upcycled mexican soda bottles

Photo by Jarritos Mexican Soda on Unsplash

This step is where ZWS thrives and it’s a fun one!

Seek out products that can be reused and try to replace as many disposables as you can with reusables.

Get creative reimagining how a product can work!

  • Jars are great for storage but they can also be used as cups.
  • Old pasta jars are great for leftovers but they can also be used for bulk items and baking goods.

Try Your Hand At Repurposing:

  • Prioritize glass jars and containers over plastic (seriously, the options are endless)
  • Mend, bedazzle, or create cut-offs from old denim/clothes
  • Shop first at thrift, antique stores, and estate sales
  • Repair a dying phone battery or airpods before replacing/tossing
  • Check out these 9 bathroom swaps
  • And these 12 swaps to replace plastic

Ask yourself: Can I use this for a long time? How else can I use this?

You might be interested in: a reusable coffee thermos, silicone stasher bags


cactus planted in upcycled mexican soda bottles

Photo by Vivianne Lemay on Unsplash

We’re all well aware the recycling industry doesn’t work as well as it should (or could).

For that reason, and to help ensure the plastic sent to the facility is actually repurposed, prioritize refusing, reducing, and reusing before recycling.

When Recycling, Check With Your Municipality For:

  • What types of plastics are accepted
  • What kinds of glass are accepted
  • If loose or bagged recycles are accepted
  • What cannot be curbside recycled
  • What other recycling facilities are available

Ask yourself: Can it be reused? Will this actually be recycled or am I wishcycling? Can I refuse or reduce this in the future?


cactus planted in upcycled mexican soda bottles

Photo by Patricia Valério on Unsplash

The final step refers to composting food scraps, paper, cardboard, leaves, yard waste, and more.

To read more about the importance of composting and how it works, check out our blog on composting.

Roughly ⅓ of waste sent to landfills is food! When food sits in a landfill it’s unable to break down properly so it begins emitting methane — a powerful greenhouse gas. Composting is an important step to combating food waste.

Fortunately there are many types of composting methods that can fit into a variety of lifestyles.

Different Types Of Composting:

  • Does your municipality have a composting program?
  • Is there a private company that offers composting services?
  • Outdoor Composting — DIY, Box, Subpod In Ground Composting System
  • Indoor Composting — Vermicomposting
  • Indoor Composting — Lomi Countertop Composter ($$)
  • Indoor Composting — The Bokashi Method

Ask yourself: Can I join a composting program? Can I start my own compost? Can I reduce my food waste?  

You might also be interested in: countertop compost bin, subpod compost system, worm factory compost system

What To Do About The 5 R’s of Sustainability?

earth day everday

Photo by Amy Shamblen on Unsplash

The short answer?

  • Take a good hard look at your life
  • See where you can implement any of these steps
  • Go at your own pace
  • If you get knocked down, get back up again.

It can seem difficult and even unmotivating to practice sustainability in a world where pets have their own airplanes. We know that more action needs to be taken by governments and large companies if we’re ever going to see change.

But we stay positive because you know what? We already have seen change. Everyday from people like you who make the ZeroWasteStore possible.

So however you can practice the 5 R’s of Sustainability, do it! We’re not perfect and we know you’re not either; that’s why it’s called practice! The more people we can draw to the movement, the more change we’ll see.

We’re cheering you on!

Written by Lauren Plug, content creator for ZeroWasteStore & Sustainability Enthusiast!

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