by Kathy Panko

Earth Day is celebrated annually on April 22nd, and 2020 marks the 50th anniversary. The theme this year is climate action, which represents the biggest challenge to the future of humanity and the support systems that make our world habitable. The first Earth Day was a unified response to an environment in crisis – oil spills, smog, and polluted rivers.  Earth Day is now credited with launching the modern environmental movement.  In honor of the 50th anniversary, and considering the current coronavirus pandemic, we’re taking a fresh look at the 5 R’s of zero waste:  Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rot – with emphasis on REFUSE.

REFUSE:  Refuse what you do not need.  Our lives are full of stuff we don’t need, and each thing has an environmental cost. The first step to minimizing waste output is to prevent the waste from entering your home in the first place. Say “no” to waste in the forms of single-use disposables like bags, straws, cutlery, cups, and other non-necessities that have a one-way ticket to the garbage bin.  Saying “no” to waste can be just as challenging as saying “no” to people, or to situations that do not serve us.  It doesn’t have to come across as harsh; a firm and friendly “no, thank you” will suffice. A thoughtful explanation might be the catalyst for motivating change in the people with whom you interact.  Saying “no” can serve as a means for learning about our own personal boundaries, how to honor these boundaries and how to move beyond our comfort zones.

REDUCE:   Reduce what you do need.  This means being clear about what you need and simply cutting back on what you don’t need. Shop with a purpose and focus on necessary purchases as opposed to random splurges on things you don’t really need.

REUSE:   Reuse by using reusables. It simply means ditch disposables for reusables. Buy a reusable beverage container and carry it with you. A refillable glass bottle or stainless steel water bottle is your ticket to parting ways with plastic bottles.  Arm yourself with reusable fabric bags for produce and other unpackaged foods, carry reusable cutlery with you, invest in a stainless steel straw, use washable dishtowels instead of paper towels. Get creative!

RECYCLE:  Recycle what you cannot refuse, reduce, or reuse.  Unfortunately, many of us have been programmed to believe that recycling is the go-to for waste reduction. This is a misconception. Recycling in its current state is quite limited and in many cases consists of “downcycling” materials into low quality, disposable goods. Also, recycling cannot keep pace with the huge quantities of single-use disposables consumed and disposed of by humans. Recycling should be treated as a last resort to be used only after steps (1) Refuse, (2) Reduce, and (3) Reuse have been exhausted.

ROT:  Rot (compost) the rest.  Nothing proves that waste can be put to use like composting.  Compost is an organic material that can be added to soil to help plants grow. That means bigger produce, prettier flowers, and a healthier garden can come at no extra cost to you once you start saving scraps and turning them into “plant food.”  There are many composting methods, but regardless of the one you choose, just watch your household waste shrink before your very eyes!  

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Again, the first step to zero waste is REFUSE.  A big part of refusing or saying “no” involves saying “yes” to sustainable goods and services.  Say “yes” to package-free purchases at  bulk-shops and farmers markets, to free refills of your water bottle, to cafes that accept reusable coffee cups, and to restaurants and shops that will fill your reusable containers.

By following the 5 R’s, you are five steps closer to a simpler and more sustainable lifestyle. 

The COVID-19 pandemic will affect most Earth Day events. Please check with organizers on event status.