The Three R’s – “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” Waste Hierarchy

You must be familiar with the concept of the 3 R’s of waste management: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. Everyone comes across this system while in school and quite possibly even after.

The popular 3 R system forms a waste hierarchy, i.e., the correct way to manage and dispose of waste. There may be more to just a simple system that everyone has come across in day-to-day endeavors, but why not take a deeper look at it?

Well, read on to learn what the 3Rs: “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” Waste Hierarchy is.

What is Waste Management?

Waste is not an alien concept. Waste comes in all forms–solid, liquid, or gas; and the methods to dispose of it can differ. Waste management aims to alleviate the adverse effects of waste on human health or the environment.

First, let’s learn what waste management is.

Well, according to Wikipedia, Waste management or waste disposal means:

“…activities and actions required to manage waste from its inception to its final disposal. This includes the collection, transport, treatment and disposal of waste, together with monitoring and regulation of the waste management process.”

In simple terms, waste management means the method of disposing products or substances you have used efficiently and safely. It also deals with how garbage can be used as a resource. Such an effective system is something that all households and business owners need.

There is no uniform or set waste management practice in the world. Depending on the countries, developed or developing, the approach towards this system differs. However, there are set principles to the system that remain unchanged.

Four principles of waste management remain even within the different approaches undertaken worldwide.

  • Waste Hierarchy (3Rs)
  • Life-cycle of a Product
  • Resource Efficiency
  • Polluter-pays Policy

Waste Hierarchy

We are all familiar with the waste hierarchy. In case you don’t know what it refers to, it means the order in which actions are to be taken to reduce waste, and improve the waste management process.

The 3 R’s of waste hierarchy are:

  • Reduce
  • Reuse
  • Recycle
Waste Hierarchy

The “three Rs” is the guide recommended to lead a sustainable life. Don’t worry! It isn’t as difficult as you might think it is. With a simple change in lifestyle, you can implement these principles to reduce waste and your carbon footprint.

The 3Rs principle helps avoid and reduce the amount of waste we throw out. It is an effective practice to conserve natural resources and energy. It also helps in cost reduction for communities.

You can build a healthier planet and a healthier lifestyle by cutting down on buying and gathering things that we don’t need, reusing items that can serve multiple purposes and recycling items that cannot be used anymore.

R1: Reduce

As the name itself suggests, ‘reduce’ means to reduce what is produced and what is consumed. The idea is that if there is less waste, there will be less to reuse or recycle. Reducing consumption includes buying and consuming less, and well, throwing away less.

Among the three Rs, reducing is the most effective in terms of producing less waste as well as saving resources. Simply think twice before buying that has caught your eye–do you really need it?

The more you purchase, the more incentive manufacturers have to produce in large numbers. It will create a cycle of consuming, not just the products but resources as well, and, ultimately, create more waste.

If you’re having trouble analyzing what and how you can reduce, here are a few steps to keep in mind-

1. Multi-use/Multi-purpose Items

Multi-use products are vital for reduction. Multi-use products can save you from spending money on something else that is almost the same or perhaps serves the same purpose.

For instance, you have a toaster oven that works as both a toaster and an oven. Do you have to buy an extra microwave for the job your toaster oven can do? Buy cloth napkins instead of paper napkins. Use your refillable pens instead of buying too many. If something can be used multiple times, then use them!

2. Reduce Trash

Does the item serve any meaning or purpose? Does what the item allows you to do have a real purpose? If not, then that item is probably disposable.

If something doesn’t really have a valid purpose or real use, then it adds to your waste. If you’re not using some item or have not used it for a long time, it is only taking up space and has become disposable. It’s time to put it away.

3. Use Durable Products

Purchase products and items that are durable and long-lasting. The durability of the product will decrease the need to buy a new thing or even replace them.

4. Be Creative

DIY is a creative practice and one that can help you cut down on the things that you throw away. If you have some plastic bottles lying around, get creative and make some things out of them. Turn empty jars into lights, decorations, or containers.

There are a lot of creative choices you can make with the things that you have no use for anymore. Be it old clothes, bottles, jars, pots, vases, or anything else. Put your creative touch on them, and you’ll have a unique item that you didn’t have to purchase. Besides, it will save you money too!

5. Donate

Instead of throwing away things that you don’t have use for, donate them. Old books, clothes, stationery items can all be donated and be put to use. Maybe make use of donated items yourself.

You can also assess things in your life. For instance, whether or not what you have serves in what you want to do or need to do. If you can be okay with not having that item, then it’s probably not going to leave any significant impact. There’s only so much you need to be prepared for!

R2: Reuse

The second ‘R’ in the “Reduce-Reuse-Recycle” hierarchy, reusing is better than recycling because you don’t have to reprocess products before using them again.

Reusing items you already have helps you avoid the costs of energy and other resources required for recycling. Similar to recycling, the decrease in the need for new materials will benefit the environment and will maintain materials in the productive economy.

However, not all items are reusable, and there may come a time when you have moved past the period in which something can be reused. Reusing items like old clothes for something else around the house or donating it to charity will put it back to use.

You can also reuse and share things like old books, glass jars, bottles, old furniture, newspapers, and more.

Let’s look at some tips on Reusing:

  • Repair damaged items. Repairing items can add to their usability, and you can use them again without buying replacements.
  • Visit second-hand stores and purchase second-hand goods. Second-hand items can often be better than buying new ones. Garage sales or second-hand stores will give you usable items and will save you some money in the process.
  • Find products with reusable packaging. Glass jar, plastic containers, and such are products that you can use multiple times and be creative in the process as well. Glass jars give you a good DIY value while you can store different items in plastic containers.
  • Find new uses for the items you are no longer using as much as before. Old clothes can become rags for cleaning, and you can find tutorials on the internet to make creative things with other clothing items, like turning your old jeans or t-shirts into bags or tote-bags.
  • Build a compost bin for things like tea bags, used tea leaves and grains, fruit peels, etc. The waste will degrade and turn into compost that you can use for your garden or nursery.
  • Things like old furniture, old books, old clothes, bottles, toys, or even stationery items can be donated to charity. You can donate reusable products and contribute to the needy. If donations are not feasible to you, then hold garage sales. Holding a garage sale is a smart idea to earn some extra money as well as help the ones who don’t have the means to buy newer goods. You will be helping them acquire these reusable goods at a much cheaper rate but will also add to your gains.

You can be creative with the way you choose to reuse items that no longer have the same value that they used to have. Reusing things not only saves the cost of resources or energy, but it also helps you be inventive and creative.

Maintain, repair, or refurbish items to restore value, function, and usefulness. You can also stretch your creative muscles and add artistic touches to items and use them as decorations or something of more value and use.

R3: Recycle

Recycling, in simple terms, gives used items or old items a new life. Recycling is a key component in the hierarchy, and it is about making new things out of old materials.

Many countries have already implemented recycling in their way of life. However, some nations are yet to implement a deep practice of this waste disposal principle. Recycling is not a concept alien to people of the world. Be it through school, media, or the community, everybody already has an idea what it is about.

With the new products produced through recycling, we can cut back on the harmful waste that pollutes the environment as well as saves on raw materials. Recycling can contribute to the economy. By saving on raw materials and resources, it saves money and even creates jobs.

Following the waste, hierarchy is a means to create a clean and sustainable environment, for the present as well as future generations. Therefore, be it through reducing, reusing, or recycling, every individual effort also plays a part in protecting the planet.

Unlike ‘reduce’ and ‘reuse,’ however, recycling involves reprocessing old items to create newer ones from the materials. The old materials are broken down into their basic elements for raw materials to make new items.

For example, the paper is broken down into fiber and later used as the raw element for a fresh product. The paper egg crates that we can easily see in stores and even at home are made from recycled paper. Similarly, depending on the materials, the recycling process differs.

There are many pros and cons of recycling.

Now let’s look at a few tips on recycling, shall we?

1. Start Small

You don’t need to start big to make your mark. Even the smallest effort counts, so it doesn’t matter whether every effort is big or small.

Starting small means starting with yourself. Look at the things that you have control over, things you own and use. As you start recycling and get comfortable with recycling your own things, you can expand your efforts and influence others around you.

2. Reduce and Reuse First

Recycling is not the first in line in the Waste Hierarchy. You cannot make a difference to the environment by simply skipping the other two: ‘reduce’ and ‘reuse.’ Reducing consumption is the most effective step in the hierarchy, so you can’t overlook it.

Consumption is essential at times, and in those cases reusing as much as possible will make it easier. Reusing eliminates the cost of energy and the resources in reprocessing the items, which makes it easier than recycling. Saving on the reprocessing alone is better than choosing to recycle.

If you have to purchase things, look for recycled products, and use them. The recycling symbols on the products tell you whether they are recycled products or recyclable.

3. Determine What to Recycle

There is never a shortage of recyclable things, but you need to have the basic idea of what to recycle.

You can find items like paper, glass, aluminum, plastic, etc. in the house, office, or school that is recyclable. While aluminum can be recycled multiple times, not all plastics are recyclable.  Instance, as such, is when the recycling symbols make it easy to determine whether or not something is recyclable.

Before you start, you need to be aware of what to recycle and where to send them for recycling.

Similar to the tips for recycling, there are factors that are vital for success in recycling. These factors determine whether or not our recycling efforts make a difference.

4. Recyclables

Not all products are recyclable. There is a recycling symbol, usually on the bottom of products that tell you whether or not it is recyclable. Products must be designed with recycling in mind for the process to be possible.

5. Collection

Recyclables need to be systematically collected and separated from the rest of the trash to ensure a constant supply for the recycling process. Separating them from trash prevents contamination while separating by item types helps facilitate easier processing.

6. Processing

Recyclables separated by material type facilitate the processing. They are broken down into their basic elements that serve as the raw materials to produce new products.

7. Demand for Recycled Products

The process will only be complete if the recycled products are put to use. Using recycled products is just as important as recycling items. Recycling can become economically viable once the recycled products are given significance and put to use.

Benefits of the Hierarchy

  • The levels of greenhouse gas emissions and pollution will decrease. Since the amount of waste thrown into the environment will significantly reduce, the chances of the toxicity spreading also decrease.

The Waste Hierarchy also eliminates the practice of improper waste disposal, i.e., burning waste and trash in an uncontrolled and haphazard manner. While reducing consumption lowers the level of waste from building, reusing and recycling limits the increase of unnecessary resource and energy consumption, leading to a greener path.

  • It cuts costs and promotes resource efficiency. It promotes the resources that are already available, usable multiple times, reprocessed, or entirely reduced. The 3R principle primarily lessens the use of newer resources and energy, making more efficient use of resources.
  • It contributes to more sustainable energy consumption. With the use of the resources on hand and the cut down on excessive consumption, it promotes the sustainability of not only energy and resources but also the environment.

By removing or decreasing the need to use new resources or new energy, it enables us to manage waste in an eco-friendly manner, in turn, lessening the risk of damage to the environment.

  • It encourages green technology development. There are different ways that waste is disposed of. Depending on the way it is done, it may impact not only the soil or groundwater but also the air.

It creates a rise in the use of renewable energy sources like solar, wind, geothermal, etc. as well.

Implementing the waste hierarchy and a proper waste management system encourages the development of technology or ways to create cleaner, safer means of disposing waste and reducing the impact on the environment and all habitats.

Landfilling and Incineration are the most common techniques in waste management today, but they need to be conducted in ways that do not leave a significant harmful impact. Thus, the waste hierarchy principle promotes greener technology and controlled waste disposal.

  • Create jobs in resource management and boost the economy. Since the 3Rs conserve energy and resources, it creates opportunities for people to work in resource management and further the practice of proper resource distribution, consumption, and waste.

Other Methods of Waste Management

Apart from the ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ hierarchy, there are other methods of waste management as well. There are many methods available to dispose of waste. Let’s briefly look at the most commonly used methods.


Landfills can commonly be found in developing countries. Today, throwing garbage in landfills is the most popular method of waste disposal. The waste or garbage is buried in the ground.  However, using landfills for waste disposal increases the rate of air and water pollution.


In the incineration method, solid wastes are burned at high temperatures and converted into residue and gaseous products. This method is preferred for countries that have limited or no landfill space available.

Waste to Energy

Through varying processes, non-recyclable waste is converted into usable heat, electricity, or fuel. This then becomes a renewable source of energy, through such reusable non-recyclable waste. Waste to Energy (WtE) also helps lessen the need for fossil fuels and reduce carbon emissions.


Composting is a natural biodegradable process that turns organic wastes into nutrient-rich food for plants. Even though it is a slow process, it is one of the best ways to turn unsafe organic products into safe compost.

The Bottom Line

Although the 3R principle is a well-known system, many countries and communities are yet to implement it as full-scale practices. Even though a few of the elements within this system may seem complicated and time-consuming, it is a beneficial system that you can start with little effort.

It is beneficial for everyone to reduce the amount of waste generated in the world, and create even the smallest opportunity of sustainability. Even though you already practice reducing, reusing, and recycling, there is a lot you can still learn about waste management to ensure safety for yourself and the ones around you.

How you dispose of your waste is your choice, but it will be in your best interest to look at all the options available to you.