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The Story Behind Three R’s: Reuse, Reduce, Recycle

The Story Behind Three R’s: Reuse, Reduce, Recycle

Few marketing campaigns manage to stay in your head from the time you were young into adulthood.

One of the most successful slogans ever learned is “reduce, reuse, recycle” or as it’s more commonly known: the three Rs.

What are the three Rs and how was this slogan developed?

There’s often a lot of debate about where the three R’s were born, with most understanding it was a government initiative to promote environmentally friendly practices.

Reduce, reuse, recycle became the three simple things to remember if you wanted to do your part for the planet, and although it’s been expanded on, it’s still commonly used today.

We’re going to look back at the history of how a simple marketing slogan became a way of life for many, and the backbone of other green initiatives in the future.

By understanding a little more about its purpose and how each of us can embody the three Rs in our daily lives, we’ll be doing our part for the good of the planet as well, and making sure future generations follow our lead.


The History of the 3 Rs

When people hear the three Rs they usually just remember the slogan from their childhood without giving much thought to its origin.

As it turns out though, this catchphrase is the center of a lot of debate about where exactly it came from, with no clear answer being available to this day.

According to most sources, Earth Day is to thank for the birth of the three Rs, and in particular, the very first one held in 1970, organized by Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson.

This first Earth Day saw over 20 million Americans come together at events across the country including festivals and fairs, being exposed to a range of issues about the environment and how we can do our part.

Before this event, the use of disposable items in the home was quite common. In the 1950s during the economic boom, a huge surge of household trash was created as people were more likely to stockpile materials so that they could be used during World War II to create weapons and other goods.

When the war was over, people had an obscene amount of trash leftover which was added to landfills across America.

Therefore, Earth Day couldn’t have come at a better time, and it wasn’t long after that the Environmental Protection Agency was born.

The EPA helped to pass the Resource Recovery Act which highlighted the importance of recovering and recycling resources like the ones that were stockpiled for the war and promoted conversation efforts and environmentally friendly practices.

The three Rs were born around the same time as this movement and became a catchy way to help people remember what to do.

They helped to raise awareness of conservation needs and show how everyday households could make a conscious effort to be green, and it’s been a slogan relied upon for decades by the American public and across the globe.

What Does Reduce Mean?

The first R is reduce, and at its simplest, it means to reduce your everyday use of items and things which lead to waste.

According to research, Americans make up just 4 percent of the world’s population but create 12 percent of its waste, which is a concerning figure and one that needs to be addressed.

Reducing means making a conscious effort to look at how much stuff we use and questioning whether or not we need to be using it.

This encompasses all things from the clothes we wear to the food we eat. We can make a huge impact on the earth if we stop at this point and simply don’t purchase anything that we don’t need.

Food waste is an especially focal point for reduce as most households waste a lot of their fresh produce each week.

Americans alone waste around 150,000lbs per day which equates to a lot every year, and it’s not just the toll it takes as landfill when it’s thrown away.

This food also uses a lot of pesticides to create and releases the greenhouse gas methane, as well as costings households a lot of money.

What Does Reuse Mean?

The second R is reuse, and this simply means to get another use out of something that you were going to throw out or recycle.

Take a look around your house, in the recycling bin, and even in the trash, and you’ll likely find a new use for many things in there, so don’t be so quick to toss them.

By reusing items that we were going to throw out, we’re giving more value to them and ensuring that they don’t end up in landfill or having to be recycled, which isn’t always as effective as you think.

Make the switch to reusable straws, dishcloths, and water bottles to lessen the amount of waste you create and save yourself a lot of money in the process.

You don’t have to reuse an item for yourself just to make it worthwhile though, as there are many other ways you can perform this R.

Your kids can turn cereal boxes into toys, you can use glass jars for drinking or as a vase, and you can donate canned goods and old clothing to people who might be in need.

All of these things prevent waste in the home and mean less has to go to landfill or a recycling plant, so think before you get rid of it forever.

What Does Recycle Mean?

The final R is the one that we pay the most attention to in this day and age, and that’s recycle. Recycling is the act of turning waste into new things, but it can’t be done with everything.

How successful a material will be in the recycling process depends on how easily it can acquire the properties had when it was first made.

This R is left for anything that can’t be reduced or reused, which includes glass, aluminum tins, cardboard, and some types of plastic.

Most homes have a recycling bin which is collected weekly and other items like soft plastics can be deposited at drop points around your city.

As each state and town has its own recycling plant, this means what they’re capable of recycling will also differ. Don’t assume that every tin or piece of plastic will be recycled, as it’s a big job for the plant to sort and decide which items they can use.

For the most current guidelines on what you can recycle, you should contact your local recycling provider directly

The Other R’s and Why They’re Just as Important

As time goes on and we learn more about conservation and doing our part for the planet, we discover more R’s that are just as important as reduce, reuse, recycle.

Consider these other actions you can take when you’re trying to do your part to limit your harm to the earth.


Rethink is more a state of mind than anything and it requires a bit of work on your part. Rethink is about challenging yourself to rethink your entire way of life and it can be pretty confronting to put into action.

Get real about yourself and the amount of waste you create, think about what areas you can cut back in, and whether or not you need that thing you just purchased.

Give yourself some time to think before buying anything and never impulse shop, and if you don’t plan on using it more than 30 times then it’s safe to say you probably don’t need it.


Refuse has taken over as the very first step we should be looking at when trying to do our part for the environment, and is now considered the first and most important R.

Think about your day to day life and how many chances you’re given to either take or refuse an item and you’ll see why it can be so important.

By refusing excess packaging, items wrapped in plastic, free and promotional products, and any other giveaways you might come across we can make a huge dent on waste in our homes and the planet overall.

When you refuse at this first point it makes the biggest impact, so it’s something to consider every time you leave the house.


Renew is similar to reuse, but it takes a little more ingenuity and creativity. To renew something requires some skill and it can include things like sewing up holes in socks, patching a broken TV cabinet, refurbishing a sofa or rewiring a lamp.

Too often we throw things away without thinking about how they could be made new again, whether you’re fixing just a singular object or combining two broken things to make them something completely brand new.

Learning some basic skills in carpentry, sewing, and DIY will make it very easy to renew anything that no longer works at home.

The Waste Hierarchy

The Waste Hierarchy

Organizations like the Environmental Protection Agency follow a tool called a waste hierarchy as a way to evaluate the best actions to protect the environment when it comes to resources and energy consumption.

This tool features a list of processes taken with the goal of reducing the amount of waste made, and by applying it properly it has many benefits, including:

  • Reduction of greenhouse gas emissions
  • Reduction of pollution
  • Conservation of resources
  • Saving energy
  • Creating jobs
  • Promoting green technology

The waste hierarchy might look slightly different depending on the organization that uses it, but it generally outlines a life cycle that each product follows. In short, it’s a fancier way of using the Rs as a way to reduce our impact on earth.

The first and most important goal is to prevent use altogether, with disposal being the last step we should consider once all other options have been exhausted.

How to Practice the 3 Rs at Home

How To Practice The 3 Rs At Home

The three Rs are an eco-mantra that every household should follow, whether or not you consider yourself to be especially green or not.

Luckily, it’s easy enough to follow the classic three Rs as well as the newcomers to the R family, just by implementing some simple changes at home. Teach your family about these easy ways to do your part and make a huge difference to the planet in the meantime.

  • Make a meal plan to follow each week in your household with a list of every ingredient you need. Don’t purchase anything that’s not on the list and check your pantry and fridge first before buying something you don’t need.
  • Consider donating old clothes to charity, or if they’re in poor condition refashion them into cleaning rags that can replace disposable ones or pet blankets for your animals to sleep on.
  • Choose clothing with materials that are long-lasting like hemp and cotton, rather than just choosing the cheapest option that’s likely to wear out sooner. You’ll be contributing to less waste and energy production, and have items that will last for many years. If you have more than one kid, hold onto everything to be used as hand-me-downs- and save a lot of money in the process.
  • Look at products that are going into your recycling bin and think about what other uses they might have before you put them there. Glass jars can be used to store drinks, nuts, and butters, and cardboard boxes can be used for kids to play with rather than buying plastic toys.
  • Go through your monthly bills and make an effort to sign up for electronic delivery only. Put a sign on your mailbox that states no junk mail. Refuse taking brochures and catalogs from the store when you’re shopping.
  • Before emptying the sink after you’ve done the dishes, use the greywater to water your plants or lawn. Using an earth-friendly dish detergent makes this easier, and gives the plants other essential ingredients like phosphorus which can help them grow.

Remembering the Rs for the Planet

Remembering The Rs For The Planet

Using the three Rs makes it easy for everyday people to do their part for the earth, even if they feel they’re just a small part of the puzzle.

What began as a simple slogan to bring home the message of conservation in the 70s is now something that we all remember, and an easy way to teach our children the importance of our actions as well.

To follow the three Rs best, we should always start with the most important one, which is to refuse and reduce. With reduced demand for these products, the manufacturers will start to make less, which tackles the problem at the root.

When you simply can’t reduce your use anymore, make a conscious effort to follow the other Rs.

There’s no quick fix for the planet but if we focus on our household instead of the larger picture, we’ll all be doing our part.

By changing the way we think about consumption and what we do with these items once they’re no longer useful, we’ll be doing more than we realize in reducing waste and our footprint on the earth.

Related Questions

The three Rs are just the beginning when it comes to reducing our footprint on the earth, but it’s a great place to start.

If you want to change the way you live and follow all of the Rs to make an impact on the planet, we’ve answered some commonly asked questions that newcomers have about doing their part.

Does Zero Waste Mean No Recycling?

Those aiming to have a zero-waste home often use recycling as an absolute last resort. The idea behind zero waste is that nothing is wasted, and this includes things being sent to a recycling plant.

Their goal is to reduce their use of plastics, paper, and glass or switch to reusable products that don’t have to be thrown out.

How Can We Conserve Water at Home?

We often look at the everyday products we use when talking about the three Rs but these rules should also apply to water.

Simple things we can do to conserve our water use include checking plumbing for leaks, reusing boiled water that has cooled to feed our plants, and installing water-saving faucets and showerheads to reduce the amount of water that comes out.

What Can’t Be Recycled?

Recycling should be the last option when it comes to following the three R’s and that’s because many household products can’t be recycled, and many still end up in landfill.

Disposable nappies, takeaway coffee cups, greasy pizza boxes, and plastic bags are all items that can’t be recycled and should be avoided where possible.

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