Friday, March 2, 2012

A Multitude of Rs

Back in a simpler age, education was concerned with the three Rs: reading, 'riting, and 'rithmatic.  (Obviously, they weren't so concerned with spelling back then.)  The environmental movement came up with its own version of the 3 Rs: reduce, reuse, recycle.  It is a catchy phrase, but it has become trite.  People rarely think about what it actually means.  We need to carefully reconsider those 3, but in addition, I think several more are worth adding to that list.
  • Refuse

  • If someone tries to give you something you don't want, refuse it. Even something as simple as refusing a glass of water saves the several glasses worth of water and a little soap required to wash it.

  • Rethink

  • Before you consume something new, ask yourself if you really need it or if something else would work as well. A hyper-mileage car may be a good thing, but if you can do without any car, that is far better.

  • Reduce

  • If you do need to use something, see if you can use less of it.

  • Rent

  • If you are only going to use something occasionally, consider renting it. If you only have one week of vacation a year, why own a vacation home or even an RV when you can rent one instead?

  • Refill

  • Not so long ago, when drinks came in glass bottles, it was possible to get them refilled. You still do have the option to fill your own cup with coffee and fountain drinks at many coffee houses and convenience stores.

  • Reuse

  • Refilling bottles is an obvious way to reuse things, but other things can be used over and over even if they are normally thrown away after one use.

  • Repair

  • Usually things don't wear out all at once. As stuff becomes more costly to produce, if something is mostly working, fixing a small broken piece becomes more worthwhile.

  • Renew / Restore

  • Eventually things will wear down or age. When it is something that represents a major investment of materials and energy, like a house, it can be worthwhile to make it like new again.

  • Return

  • One of the problems with being a conservationist in a consumer society is that for many of these options, there are no economies of scale for the end user.  If we were to start returning stuff we have used up to where we bought it, they would have more incentive to deal with it properly.

  • Repurpose

  • This is basically reusing stuff, except it is for a different purpose than the original -- for example, using chopsticks for plant stakes.

  • Redesign

  • Once consumers start returning things they have used, companies will want to rethink how they make things.  Some examples are making things that are easy to disassemble or using standard parts that can be reused if they are still good.

  • Recycle

  • Breaking things down into their constituent materials and reusing them is not a bad option, but it is usually the last that should be considered.  Considerable time and energy has to be expended doing this -- granted, it still usually takes less than starting with virgin materials, but other options are better.

  • Regenerate

  • This is the ultimate goal.  Sustainability sounds like a good idea, but it is not enough.  All the other Rs help minimize the damage we do and keep things going as long as we can, but there is a limit to how much of that we can do.  Focusing on regenerating our resources and world we have degraded is what will propel us upward on the Long Ascent.

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