Zero Waste at Home: What You Need to Know About the 5Rs

Zero Waste at Home: The 5Rs, Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and Rot

My family has been trying to move towards a more climate-friendly way of living. Our core strategy has been around reducing our carbon footprint across the board. Moving towards Zero Waste has given us some of our biggest wins towards this goal. Even better it has been cost neutral. So a win from multiple angles. It is very much still a work in progress. Realistically, we are a ‘Less Waste at Home than Before’ family. We will get there though! 

This post is the second in our series on a Zero Waste Home. My focus here is to chat about the 5Rs of Zero Waste living, and what my family have done to try to bring each into our home. The 5Rs are the outlined in much more detail in guru Bea Johnsons book; “Zero Waste Home: The Ultimate Guide to Simplifying Your Life by Reducing Your Waste”. Its an excellent book if you are looking for a deeper guide. Review to follow in coming weeks. 

This post has one section for each of the 5Rs; Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and Rot. It finishes up with my round up of why it fits so well for my ‘ActuallyAutistic’ self.  You can read it all, jump between the steps, or head straight to end. 

Purple text: Quick wins for everyone. Zero waste at home. Yellow background: Electrical devices, a toolkbox, daisies, glass jars, a shampoo bar, a moon cup, and other toiletries

I am not going to give a long explanation of what Zero Waste at Home is here, or why it is important, or how individual action can contribute to systemic change. That is all well covered in the first post of this series, linked here. Check it out if you have not had the chance. Bringing it home, it’s an effort to bring our family’s impact on the planet under control. Reducing our carbon footprint, by:

1) eliminating as much of the causes of waste as possible at home

2) maximising the benefit we get from the resources that we do use 

3) reducing the climate impact of the activities we need to keep going with

Nobody has to get to zero. The effort to get their helps though. The more people who are trying to do this the better. Demand for the worst products/practices will fall and more sustainable services will pop up, and together we can all make this difference. We can have a happier planet and a brighter future. So now, without further info dumping, here are the 5Rs of a Zero Waste Home and our efforts to actually achieve them. 

Step 1: Refuse

The first step is to Refuse. This is a simple one, but probably the most important. Refuse the things you do not need. Stop adding to the demand for unnecessary stuff to be manufactured, mined , transported, sold. Vote with your feet. 

This covers things like junk mail, straws, stirrer sticks, freebies, single use plastics, etc. Even if they are recyclable just say no. It is better that they do not get produced to begin with than being recycled. Both the production and recycling of materials use energy and resources, and there is no need for it for a lot of the things in the categories. 

Purple text on yellow background: Refuse, just say no - a green thumbs down and a crossed out plastic bag

Freebies like pens, or useless toys that come with things, straws, stirrer sticks, plastic cutlery. Just don’t take them. Every time you do not take something, or buy something, you reduce the demand for them to be produced. 

The plus side is that you don’t end up with 18 drawers of clutter you will never use and will eventually have to spend time and money getting of rid of.  

There are plenty of different ways that you can put this step into action. The easiest wins our family have had on this come from:

  • Adding a “No Junk Mail” sign to our door. (I was skeptical that it might tempt people to add more junk mail but no, it has reduced it by about 95%).

  • Swapping to using online sites for information, such as news and local classifieds, library services for magasines, etc.,  instead of printed versions. This was a really easy one and has saved us money too. 

  • Bringing our own shopping bags to the supermarket. Initially I tried using the reusable plastic ones but they take up so much room in my handbag that I didn’t stick with it. I got 5 cotton ones and they fold up tiny and hold loads. 

  • Cutting out single use items (not just plastics) as often as you can.  Saying no to coffee cup holders, paper serviettes, straws, sachets, free toys, buying veggies that are not in packaging, refusing receipts. 

We got used to a lot of these changes pretty quickly. A simple comment that you are trying to go paper or plastic free is usually enough to get helpful reactions. Some trickier changes we have been working on include bringing our own containers to the shops so that things such as meat don’t need packaging (hit and miss since Covid), and trying to source refillable or package free products locally. In a nutshell, if you do not need it, then just say no. 

Step 2: Reduce

The next step is to Reduce. This is about reducing the impact of your choices when it comes to things you cannot do with out. This means using less of resources where possible, but also focusing on reducing the impact of those you do use. As with step 1 this helps to reduce consumer demand in most areas, but it also helps build demand for environmentally sustainable products. To me, that is a win win.

The first part of this is to reduce your impact in terms of what you purchase. Look at the amount, the packaging, and what it is made of. This involves auditing your consumption and then making plans on how to reduce it. Some people do this all at once, others room by room, or product type by product type. The kitchen is a popular room to start it, and there are lots of tutorials online on the zero waste kitchen. 

The second part is to be much more conscious of non-consumables. Replace non-consumables only if they are really needed. Do you need a garlic press or will one of your 6 kitchen  knives do? Do you need 9 wooden spoons, etc. Try to focus on multi-purpose items when you do purchase non-consumables. Reduce the amount of things you have to maintain and store, and reduce demand for new items. Buy only what you need.  When you do need to buy something buy the best you can afford (lasts longer). Support companies with sustainable practices before others. 

We simply made a list of our most used and most packaged, products. Next we added those made from the most environmentally dodgy chemical nasties and using the most damaging practices. We kept it on the fridge over a few weeks. Finally we started work on reducing the worst culprits. 

Purple text on mint background: Reduce. A bar chart with a yellow arrow showing reduction

Changes that were relatively easy to make: 

  • Swapping to fruits and veggies that are not packaged where we could. This was easy to do for 80% of our fruits and veg. 

  • Swapping to plastic free packaging where packaging free was not possible. This was harder, maybe 40% successful. It is hard to find to be honest, and often much more expensive. Take pasta for example. 500g of whole-wheat penne in a plastic bag is approx. 99c, 500g from our newly opened zero waste shop is almost 2.5 times the cost. 

  • Swapping bottled bathroom products for bars. This was easy for soap and shaving foam but not shampoo or shower gel. About 50% success so far, and cost neutral. A few other changes were to ‘less bad’ rather than fully successful. An example was switching to a tub of tooth powder that lasts longer than a tube, is recyclable, and has much lower transportation requirements. 

  • Swapping to an Eco-Egg instead of using washing powder. 99% success., and a huge money saver. Twice in about 8 months I have needed to use a vanish bar as there were stains that the egg wasn’t up too. 

  • Swapping to cloth napkins for kitchen paper. 100% successful. Will eventually break even!

  • Swapping to safety razors instead of using disposables. 100% success, and a money saver.

  • Adding filled bottles of water to our toilet cisterns. This reduces the amount of water used in each flush. We used empty gin bottles. It could require explaining if anyone ever looks in the cistern. But why would they!

  • Reusable sanitary products. Nowhere near as awful/traumatic to deal with as expected. Enough said.

This process does start to get complicated. Trying to take into consideration the supply chain for products, their costs, carbon offsetting by companies, energy sources, etc., gives me headaches. Apples from Wexford have a lot less of an impact than Apples from Italy, but what about lemons from Italy compared to lemons from Greece? Do we even need lemons anyway? And what agricultural products were used? At what point do reusable sanitary products become unsustainable if they are not made locally? When you decide to but a new computer and you choose a French manufacturer, how do you take into consider its’ processor, or the solder used on the motherboard? What about the nature of the effluent from products we use? It is a confusing rabbit hole. I am working through it but this will take awhile. So while we are trying to only buy things that have sustainable supply chains, its been quasi-successful at best.    

We are also trying to grow some food in our garden. The aim is reduce the amount we need to buy to begin with. There are some local insects who disagree. They demonstrated this by stripping our gooseberry bush one night. Every single leaf. One day all luscious and green and berry-ing. The next day it was just a fancy stick with branches. Its’ not been the same since. Then they turned on the Brussel Sprouts. I digress. Some things have grown well, scallions, strawberries, the apple tree, Kale. It is early days on this too.  

Yellow text re-use on green background. Drawings of paint, buttons, thread, and tools
Step 3: Reuse

Step 3 is to Reuse. This is the one I have been enjoying most. This step is all about maximising the lifecycle of products and resources before they enter the waste systems. 

Reuse and Repair: You can repurpose items for another purpose (e.g. old glass sauce jars as containers), update older items, repair broken items. You can learn the skills needed for some of this, and pay for services when you cannot do it yourself. 

Items that you cannot reuse can be moved on. Don’t just have presses full of clutter, sitting wasted and unused. Sell or donate your unused, unloved, items. They can almost always be used by somebody else. This is another win-win. Doing this will save you the cost of disposing of it, make a little cash, declutter your home, reduce the demand for new products, increase the lifespan of those items, and max out the value gotten for the resources that are used in making them.   

Finally, buy secondhand first. This has lots of benefits, it extends the life of the product you are buying, and saves you money. It also helps create the demand for people to resell their items, and encourages secondhand shops and menders, and is a step towards a more sustainable, circular, economy.

The easiest wins our family have had in this category come from 

  • Selling an air fryer, food processor, baking tins, old chair, bookcases, on Facebook Marketplace. This was great, we decluttered the kitchen and made a profit. 

  • Giving away items that were not in good enough condition to sell, but which still had life left in them. Some clothes that did not fit, glass jars, spare plant pots, some children’s toys. 

  • Buying a second hand bread maker for 32 euros and since then making bread at home instead of buying sliced pans and pizzas. This has worked out excellently. The quality of the bread is much better. It is tastier, fresher, better quality, and packaging free. It is also cheaper per loaf, and makes the house smell amazing. 

This step has been quite fun, and overall has been good for our pockets. It is a good ethos overall. 
Step 4: Recycle

Step 4 is to Recycle. This is an interesting step because it is where we are generally told to focus when it comes to waste management. However, recycling should be the last resort, it is far better not to ever get to the point where a resource needs to be recycled at all.

The trick to recycling is to have a dedicated recycling system. Separate different types of recycling and make sure it is always clean. You can ruin a whole bale of recycling by including food waste. 

Green text: Recycle on lime-green background with recycling symbol

The quick win here is to contact you waste provider to find out what can be recycled, and to act accordingly. Some helpful hints about recycling: 

  • Soft scrunchy plastic. If you can scrunch it up in your hand then its probably not recycleable. 

  • Black plastic food trays. Some containers shouldn’t be recycled. This is because the sorting equipment that is typically used in recycling centres cannot cope with the blacks.  

  • Water should always be recycled where possible. It seems unnecessary because it is such a wet country, but water is a finite resource and needs to be treated as such.

  • Bathrooms: Ideally you can reduce the amount of waste from your grooming habits. On top of that please add a recycling container to your bathroom if you do not already have them. Most of us only have one little bin in there, and everything goes into that. That bin then goes into your general rubbish bin without being sorted (because ughhh bathroom waste bin). You need to separate the recyclables before they end up in there.  

In our house, we were already recycling well. It was just the amount we were amassing to recycle that needed to be tackled. In addition to the bathroom recycling bin, one thing we have done is buy a soda stream to carbonate drinks. Clearly not a necessity item, but it has drastically reduced the amount of plastic bottles we use each week.  Figuring out how to recycle razor blades properly in our local area took some time. 
Rot - Compost - Brown Bins - Garden boots - Flowers
Step 5: Rot

Composting is the final step. Many online discussions on this combine step 4 and step 5, viewing rotting (composting) as the recycling of biodegradable food waste

In my house (urban) this is done using a ‘brown bin’. We collect our food waste during the day in a caddy on the counter, and we deposit into the brown bin each morning. Periodically it is collected and taken away.

There are a few things I have learned. An example is that soiled paper can be composted via the brown bin as it will biodegrade. This covers paper wrappers, tissues, and pizza boxes. Dryer fluff, wooden skewers, corks, and latex balloons surprised me too. 

Confession: I will admit we do use compostable bags in the caddy, which is unnecessary and not good for the planet. I could just clean it out, or line it with paper. We did try that, we really did. It was ok in the winter, but the summer…. It was stopping us from composting. So caddy bags it is. 

If you are lucky enough to have space to set up a decent composting system at home then you can really embrace this step. I do not know enough about it to make recommendations on it so I am not going to try.  

Zero Waste Review: A Happier #ActuallyAutistic Home

These final paragraphs are based on the review from Part 1 of this series. This is a series after all. Now that you have seen the detailed version of what my family have been introducing, I wanted to remind you of the impact its had on our family.  

Parts of the 5 principles of Zero Waste at Home, Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, and Rot, have been easy to introduce in our home. Other parts have been trickier. Some things we have tried have really failed, for example shampoo bars, I have tried at least 8 with no success. Sometimes you need a product immediately and cannot wait for a secondhand version to come available. Some recommended zero waste changes I cannot entertain at all, my electric toothbrush is going nowhere and cloth diapers are a no no. We have reduced the amount of takeaways but not banned them altogether. That said, many of the easier changes were quick and required no effort, and a lot of the others only needed a little effort. 

I expected moving towards Zero Waste would make me happier. It aligns well with my values and has eased my worry about not trying to do what I can. What I wasn’t expecting was an improvement in quality of life beyond that. We have saved money overall, not huge bundles but still. We eat really nice bread. We spend more time outside. Our clothes do not have strong synthetic smells. There is much less clutter in our home (so it is more organised, easier to clean and less triggering). From clothes, to toys, and to furniture, what we bring into our house is of a higher quality. This is true of secondhand or new items. Overall they are much more tactile, less plasticky, and generally much pleasanter to be around than those they have replaced. From a sensory perspective the environment has really improved. My #ActuallyAutistic instincts are loving it. 

For me, focusing on slow, sustainable change is always more successful.  Our family have focused on making the changes we can make, and ensuring they can be sustainedWe are still early in our journey, and hope to keep making changes. The easier wins, all listed in this article, together make a big impact. Would it impress a Zero Waste purist? No, not at all. Does it a make a difference? Yes, absolutely. 

Sally Anne is an autistic academic, mentor, and mother. Her interests are her family, her books, the housing market, the environment and tech. She is recently diagnosed (though had suspected for a while). Through this blog she wants to connect with the autistic community and understand herself better. She believes in “knowledge for knowledge’s sake” and if she finds a button, she will need to press it!

Sally Anne

Sally Anne is an autistic academic, mentor, and mother. Her interests are her family, her books, the housing market, the environment and tech. She is recently diagnosed (though had suspected for a while). Through this blog she wants to connect with the autistic community and understand herself better. She believes in “knowledge for knowledge’s sake” and if she finds a button, she will need to press it!

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