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Explaining the 5 R’s Of Zero Waste

What is Zero Waste?  Bea Johnson, the mother of Zero Waste Living, created the 5’Rs of zero waste to make sustainable living easier. Keep reading to find out what they are and how to use them.


What is Zero Waste?  Bea Johnson, the mother of Zero Waste Living, created the 5'Rs of zero waste to make sustainable living easier. Keep reading to find out what they are and how to use them. | We Three Shanes

Down the Zero Waste YouTube Rabbit Hole

Have you ever taken a trip down the YouTube rabbit hole? I have more times than I can count. I am a person who is often busy, but also LOVES taking in information. To me YouTube is life! I’m watching significantly more YouTube than television because I can take it around with me, and listen as I get stuff done.

One afternoon, I found myself on one of these strange journeys as I was watching YouTube. I was trying to figure out how to be more frugal by using reusable items. I also knew that by using more reusable products, it would lower my plastic consumption and I would be helping the oceans and planet. The subjects of frugality, reusables, plastic reduction, conscious living are right up my alley…so down that rabbit hole I went.

There I was, clicking on video after video, further and further into these subjects when I stumbled upon a Ted Talk by Bea Johnson titled, “Two Adults, Two Kids, Zero Waste“. I had never really delved into the Zero Waste movement before because it sounded so daunting to me. But I was intrigued by a family with kids doing it, so I clicked.

Then I clicked on another Bea video called, “Bea Johnson’s Zero Waste Lifestyle”. It was beautiful, and I was inspired! Bea is the creator of the 5 R’s of Zero Waste that I’m going to explain in just a minute.

Little did I know that by clicking those videos, I would be introduced to the “mother” of the individual, Zero Waste movement. It would change the way I look at my accountability, and the way I feel about the waste I produce, forever. From then on, it even changed a large amount of what I watch on YouTube, leading me to a lot of people I now subscribe to and watch regularly.

Where did Zero Waste Come From?

Bea Johnson is this lovely, amazing woman who started the idea of using the term Zero Waste as an individual movement. Zero Waste was initially a term that was used to express frustration with the lack of responsibility and recycling on a national scale, as it applied to business and manufacturing. 

This is part of what does frustrate me (and others) about the term Zero Waste being used for the individual. Why are individuals expected to make the largest strides, instead of the biggest producers of waste?

But if we are currently the ones who are making the biggest impact, how can we make businesses listen to us and pay attention? By using our dollars to vote and not buying wasteful or toxic products.

When I spend my money on a product that is very wasteful in its use of packaging, or a product that has very toxic ingredients, I am telling the manufacture, that I approve of this product. I am also encouraging them to make another one to take the place of the item I bought. I’ve voted with my dollar, and given my stamp of approval.

If it’s going to take the individual to do this, then I’m going to try to live my ethics and not just talk about what everyone else should be doing. I’ve made the decision. I’m going to help blaze this trail and set the example. Want to join me?

What is Zero Waste?  Bea Johnson, the mother of Zero Waste Living, created the 5'Rs of zero waste to make sustainable living easier. Keep reading to find out what they are and how to use them. | We Three Shanes

What are the 5’Rs of Zero Waste?

Being that Bea was the real start of the individual movement, I’m going to be using the 5 R’s of Zero Waste that she talks about in her revolutionary book, Zero Waste Home.

  1. Refuse (what you do not need)
  2. Reduce (what you do need)
  3. Reuse (what you consume)
  4. Recycle (what you can not Refuse, Reduce, or Reuse)
  5. Rot (compost the rest)

Let’s explore each of these further.


We take stuff we don’t need all of the time, sometimes without even realizing it. Someone hands you a free pen, a straw with your drink, you pick up a promotional t-shirt (you won’t really wear…but it was FREE), you get handed a flyer. Let’s not even get started with junk mail or credit card offers?

How much of that do you actually use before it ends up in the trash? I bet a lot of it ends up in the trash pretty quick. What if instead we say, “No thank you”? It keeps junk from cluttering up your house and it stops the need to crank out another one of those products. 


Imagine how much waste (and money) you could save if you just made your needs and wants less. Also, think about reducing what you already have, but no longer need. When we let go of things we don’t need (and donate them of course, so they aren’t creating more waste), then we are making them available to someone who does need them.

In what other ways can we adopt this principle in our lives?

  • Think about embracing minimalism. You can try to drop a shopping habit. Maybe choose to no longer participate and give your voting dollar to  the cycle of fast fashion.
  • We can also reduce food waste, which is a huge problem in the United States! Are there certain foods that almost always end up in your trash? Can you buy less? Can you meal plan to reduce waste and save you time and money?
  • Another thing you are going to want to reduce to live a low waste lifestyle is packaging. Not only is less packaging good for the planet, it’s good for your pocketbook. Did you know that on average, 15% of the money you spend on goods is spent on the packaging? The packaging that will end up in your garbage very soon. We are literally throwing away our money!


We have become a disposable society. Single use plastic has become completely normal. Globally we use 2 million plastic bags every minute! It didn’t used to be this way. Our grandparents didn’t have to rely on something they would throw away in mere minutes. There are so many good reusable substitutes that will actually save you money in the long run.

Another way we can practice the principle of reuse, is to think about what we can repair before disposing. Sometimes it just seems easier to toss an item, than to repair it. A lot of time, that ease hits us in the wallet. Look into repair before automatically sending an item to the trash.

We can also try looking for items second hand. Not only does this prevent the need for companies to replace the new item you just bought from them, but again, this practice can save you money. Especially when we are talking about “big ticket” items like cars or electronics that depreciate just after being bought.

Check out consignment stores, thrift shops, Facebook Marketplace, and many more places. You can get clothes, furniture, even electronics all second hand and at reduced prices. We Shane sisters have been shopping at thrift stores since we were young, and it always served us well!


A lot of people think that the answer to our trash and plastic problems is to recycle more. Bea believes it is the opposite. That’s why recycle is so far down the list. She thinks we should recycle less!

Not because she doesn’t think that recycling is great for what we can not refuse, reduce, or reuse. She thinks too many people just think, “But I can recycle it” and continue to bring things, they don’t need, into their home.

Plus, some items don’t recycle as well as we would hope. Plastic for example can only be recycled a certain number of times before it will have to be made into something non-recyclable. This means all plastic made will eventually end up in a landfill,  where it can take hundreds of years to biodegrade.

Bea wants us to remember to refuse, reduce, and reuse first so there is less waste brought into our home that will need to be recycled. Only after we have done the first 3 R’s should recycling even be considered. In a lot of our homes right now, the opposite is happening.


Last but not least, is rot, or composting. There are some items that just can’t be refused, reduced, reused, or recycled. You want to eat an orange, but that orange will create waste when you peel it. That peel can be “recycled”. It can be made into rich compost that can be used in our gardens. (Gardens where we can make some of our own food to save even more money and reduce the need for more packaging.)

Lots of things can be composted; fruit and veggie leftovers and peels, newspapers, even our hair after a haircut. But there are some things that can’t be put in our compost like meat and dairy products. I would encourage you to figure out the least amount of these items that you use for two reasons. 

  1. Non-compostable items are usually the most expensive part of your food budget. Not over-buying them saves you money.
  2. If you are buying only what you really need of these items, you will not be sending the extra to the landfill.

Bea Johnson, the mother of Zero Waste Living, created the 5'Rs of Zero Waste to make sustainable living easier. Learn what they are and how to use them here! | We Three Shanes

Order and Importance of the 5 R’s of Zero Waste

The 5 R’s aren’t just a list. They go in order, starting with Refuse and ending with Rot. It really is a great cycle for sustainable living. By refusing and reducing we bring less into our homes. When we reuse we keep new things from being made and old things from being wasted. The first three R’s means there is less stuff to recycle and rot.

When I came to understand the 5 R’s of zero waste and why they are in that order, it does help me make better choices. I think twice about bringing plastic into my life, even if it can be recycled. 

Do I need this t-shirt, just because it’s kind of cute? No! I take the time to realize that I don’t need it, and it’s made out of materials that I don’t want to purchase with my “voting dollar”. Who wants to be a mindless consumer that can be easily manipulated? Taking the time to think these things through saves me money, and gives me strong convictions.

Now that you know, and can better understand the 5 R’s of Zero Waste Living, how are you going to implement them into your daily life? How will they change the way you think about the waste you produce, and the choices you make about what you bring into your home?

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