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Introduction to Sustainable Living: the five Rs and other principles

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It all started one evening almost three years ago. I was lying on my bed, bored out of my mind. While I was browsing on YouTube, the Ted Talk “Why I Live a Zero Waste Life” by Lauren Singer drew my attention. This young activist was showing the audience a mason jar where she stored all the trash that she had produced in three years.

That monologue changed my perspective about my own lifestyle: I’ve always cared about the environment, but I naively thought that recycling was the best I could do. Well, I was wrong. Even though recycling is an excellent habit, there are more effective ways to reduce your carbon footprint. It’s been three years since I started my sustainability journey and, although I still have a lot to learn, I’d like to share with you all my progress. Whilst binge-watching videos on YouTube, I realised I could improve in all aspects of my daily life. After finding out the impact of fast fashion and plastic disposables, I decided to make choices that are coherent with my values. Of course, the idea of waking up the following day and making my own toothpaste was not exciting. Thus, I decided to change my habits through baby steps: every month I planned to adopt one or two sustainable alternatives allowing them to become part of my daily routine.

I am nowhere near Lauren’s achievements, but I hope that my posts will help to inspire you to reduce your carbon footprint. Ready to start? Keep reading!

The five Rs and other principles

In her book Zero Waste Home (2013, p.14), Bea Johnson identifies five main principles, called "the five Rs", that can guide us on our sustainability journey:

Refuse: how many useless things are dumped on us every day? Do you need a plastic straw to drink your cocktail? Or that restaurant leaflet? This concept makes us reconsider what we really need and refuse excessive consumerism.

Reduce: Reduce what you need by simplifying your life. For instance, you can minimise impulsive purchases and reduce your carbon footprint by diminishing your consumption in terms of energy, water, disposable plastic, etc. Even small changes like turning off lights in the rooms when you are not in them, or being careful not to waste water when you brush your teeth, can go a long way to offsetting your carbon footprint.

Reuse: using and taking care of the things we already own is the most sustainable action we can do. In this category, you can add another two concepts: reinvent (or upcycle) and repair. This principle expresses the need to switch from a linear to a circular economy.

Recycle: recycle everything that cannot be refused, reduced and reused. Take some time to learn to how to recycle your rubbish properly.

Rot: compost food, leaves, etc. You can either build your own compost bin in your garden, or use the compost facilities in your town or city.

With the grow of the Zero Waste movement, other activists have introduced new principles of sustainability.

Let’s imagine I need a dress for a wedding. Before running to the shopping mall, I can ask a relative or a friend if I can borrow one of theirs. Alternatively, I can investigate if there are shops that rent dresses for special occasions, or I can look into clothes swapping events in my area.

Otherwise, I could look for a dress in a second-hand shop or a charity shop (to learn more about charity shops, click here!) In the last few years I’ve often shopped at charity shops and I must say I have always been very satisfied with my purchases. After all, how many unused things hide in the house gathering dust? Instead of throwing them away, I try to re-home (and re-gift) them by selling or donating them to people in need. But let’s get back to the wedding: if I wanted to invest in a high-quality new dress, I could buy it from a sustainable fashion brand. (I’ll discuss fast fashion more in-depth in the upcoming posts!)

The last two principles I’d like to mention regard food. As you surely have noticed, most food is packaged in plastic, which is often not recyclable or doesn’t get recycled anyway. If you are so lucky to have a zero-waste shop near your house, you can refill your containers there to avoid useless packaging. Finally, why not try to grow your own fruit and veg?

In conclusion…

Now that you are full of enthusiasm to become eco-warriors, it’s important to keep in mind that you don’t need to buy loads of eco-friendly gadgets to replace your unsustainable items. Since I believe that the core of sustainability is consuming less and consuming better, I’d suggest using what you already have at home. In the meantime, you can research how to replace these objects when it’s not possible to use them anymore.

Frequent questions

Is it difficult to be eco-friendly?

It’s easier than you may think, but it requires some degree of commitment, especially at the beginning. For example, saying goodbye to plastic bags was extremely easy for me, but buying food in bulk still feels like a “mission impossible” given the limited access to zero-waste shops in my city. Just give yourself time, and don’t be too disappointed if something doesn’t go the way you liked!

Is it expensive?

Generally, I would say no. I’ve saved a lot of money since adopting this lifestyle. I’ve noticed that many disposable products cost much more in the long run than the reusable options. Moreover, buying second-hand (clothes, books, houseware, you name it) is great for the planet and for your wallet. If you decide to buy something new, the emphasis is on the quality and not on the quantity. In other words, you invest in one valuable and long-lasting piece instead of buying five poorly made products.

Is it time-consuming?

Sometimes. Carrying a tote bag just requires the effort of remembering it, while buying groceries in bulk can be challenging if the only zero-waste store in your area is a hour’s drive away. Just try and see what works for you!

I hope this blog post gave you some food for thought, and you can follow me on Instagram and Pinterst for more sustainability content!

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Johnson, B., 2013. Zero Waste Home. 1st ed. Great Britain: Penguin Group.

McCallum, W., 2018. How To Give Up Plastic. 1st ed. Great Britain: Penguin Random House.

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