“Refuse” is the Alpha and the Omega of the Five Rs. How so, you ask? Well, if you do this first one right, you don’t even have to think about the two the kids on the bag are struggling with.
I had to giggle a bit when I noticed the above caption on this Trader Joe’s shopping bag. It illustrates the general public’s overall confusion with the Five Rs and the fact that the bag exists at all shows that the first of the Five Rs is the most commonly forgotten. Which is it? It’s “refuse” my friends, “refuse.” I promised a five part series on the Five Rs, so let it begin.
Read my guilt. That Trader Joe’s bag is on my kitchen counter which means that one time very recently, someone in my household dashed in TJs for some quick goodies and either forgot to bring in their reusable bags, or –gasp! — didn’t care! This scenario happens way too easily in our society. Let’s go over the concept of Refuse, and then we’ll take a look at some of the most common scenarios in which we screw this up, and how to avoid it.
Refuse is the Alpha and Omega of the Five Rs. How so, you ask? Well, if you do this first one right, you don’t even have to think about the two the kids on the bag are struggling with. The term Refuse refers to refusing to buy/be handed or otherwise come in possession of single use waste items; most commonly plastic but also glass, aluminum, tin, paper, etc. We so often come in contact with single use “disposable” items that it’s super easy not to realize at all how often we use and toss these things. On an average weekend day of running errands and grabbing some food on the way, I could easily add a couple of dozen to my unfortunate collection.
Is it realistic that we might refuse all of these items and be 100% perfect Zero Wasters? Meh. Some Pinterest Pins and Instagrammers might tell you yes, but for most of us, we’ve got other things to do with our lives. Sheer perfection isn’t likely. Regardless, it is a goal we are working towards and since doing it reasonably well means we don’t have to monkey around with the other 4 Rs, it’s a worthwhile endeavor.
How do we obtain these single use items? Let me count some of the common ways:
Packaging in the grocery store: cardboard boxes, plastic bags/pouches, aluminum cans, glass bottles and jars, and frequently, plastic bags within cardboard boxes.
Plastic and paper shopping bags. (Even if you own and remember reusable bags most of the time, your mother in law likely still brings plastic home with her (not my mother in law, surely), or you forget your bags in the car and are too lazy to go out and get them once you’re in the store.
Boxes, bags, and bags within bags within bags within bags within boxes for your online shopping habit.
Dining out, especially if you are getting takeout or drive thru, but even at sit down places, you are likely to encounter plastic sauce/dressing cups, straws, and styrofoam doggie takeout containers.
Gifts from well meaning loved ones and friends.
Plastic windows on otherwise recyclable envelopes.
Plastic and paper tags on clothing.
Heck, a lot of your clothing is actually made from plastic; and while it may not technically count as “single use,” today’s fast fashion means that a shirt you’d like to own for years likely won’t even make it through a single season without shrinking, bunching, balling, tearing, misshaping or other sad and premature death outcomes.
So what’s someone seeking to live a sustainable lifestyle to do? Let’s revisit the above scenarios with some alternatives. Some of these are going to be easier than others. Remember, we’re not seeking perfection, so start with the ones that are easiest and then work your way down the list of difficulty as your green muscles strengthen.
Packaging in the grocery store: the easiest thing to do here is to locate a store in your area that offers at least some bulk items on your list and fill up reusable containers you already have in your possession. Let the store manager know you love the bulk options and would love to see them expanded. If you’re super lucky, you live in one of the areas that has an all-bulk grocer. Also keep in mind that not everything needs to be in a container. No, you don’t really need a flimsy plastic bag around every single item of produce you buy. If you must choose containers, look for those from post consumer recycled content that also will be handy for the “Repurposing” we’ll be visiting in a few weeks.
Plastic and paper shopping bags: bring your own reusables each and every time. If you forget, walk your heinie back to the car. You need the exercise anyway. Yes you do. Most stores offer you a bag credit for each disposable bag you don’t use, so be sure to ask.
Boxes and bags from online shopping: do you really need to buy this thing? No really, do you? In a this-item-will-likely-save-me-from-death kind of way? That might sound drastic, but our society really confuses the word “need” with what they really mean, “want,” a lot. The things we want far outweigh things we really need to get by. Most of the time, these things come from a shopping-as-recreation habit, from keeping up with trends, competing with friends and neighbors, or simply shopping mindlessly because the money in your pocket is just too heavy to keep carrying around. If you find you really do capital N-E-E-D this item, check to see if your online retailer offers a less packaging or plastic free option. Amazon does, as an example, with varying levels of success.
Dining out: do it less. Restaurant food likely isn’t organic, grown locally and it’s definitely a lot more expensive than preparing food at home. Research ways to bring food from home to make on-the-go eating better on the planet and your debit card. If you want to treat yourself sometimes, do it. However, refuse the plastic altogether. Bring a few extra pieces of silverware from home, along with a glass jar, cloth napkins, and reusable straws in your to-go kit, and you’ve got everything you need with you already.
Gifts: spread the word ahead of time, in casual conversation, about how you’re shifting from owning a lot of things to enjoying more experiences. Hold gift-free celebrations, and encourage others to do the same. If you do end up doing a gift exchange, consider a “secret santa” style charitable donation, or give and request handmade gifts. I’ll do an in-depth blog about this topic as we get a bit closer to the holidays.
Clothing: the best choice is to shop resale. Before you get scuzzed out imagining digging through bins of lice-and-bedbug-ridden discount clothes, realize that second hand clothing has gotten a lot more mainstream and it’s easy to find higher quality resale shops, charity resale, vintage boutiques, and even local exchanges in your neighborhood to make getting your hands on a barely worn, well made item of natural fibers a heck of a lot classier. Avoid synthetic fibers that shed micro plastics (another upcoming blog post). If you do insist on buying new, look for eco-minded clothing manufacturers that focus on natural fibers, and fair wages for workers. You are going to pay more, but these items are of much better quality and can last you a lifetime with proper care. As with the slow food movement, there is also a slow fashion movement.
Mail: switch as many bills as possible to online bill pay. Cancel your newspaper and magazine subscriptions. Opt-out of prescreened credit offers. Wait at your mailbox and snarl at your mail carrier when they try to deposit the weekly ads. Okay, maybe don’t do that last one. But do ask if there’s any way around getting those delivered. If not, remember you’ve got the remaining four Rs to get by on.