Waste and the 5 R’s

David Holmgren is one of the co-originators of the permaculture design concept. His book Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability is a must read for anyone wanting to get a good theoretical understanding of what permaculture is all about. In the book Holmgren outlines his personal definition, ethics, and twelve principles of permaculture design. One of those principles is to produce no waste, which we in America have a very hard time coming to grips with. We’ve all seen the ‘3 R’s’ campaign here of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and yet Americans still throw an inordinate amount of perfectly serviceable stuff away. This is evidenced by the thriving dumpster diving sub-culture that mines the dumpsters of America for food, clothing, and countless other items to put to immediate use or sold and by the over-filled landfills around the country.

Holmgren suggests that we eliminate the concept of wastes from our minds and thus offers up ‘5 R’s’ as a guideline to help transition us to a waste free society- an ambitious though necessary goal. His 5 R’s are: Refuse to buy or engage in consuming action, Reduce consumption,energy and material use, Reuse either creatively or continue to use for primary purpose, Repair with as few resources as possible, and Recycle as last resort as this is the most energy intensive option (see Holmgren, 112). 

With this principle in mind permaculturist seek to create new uses for as many things as possible. It is ridiculous to me that something that is extracted from the earth using massive amounts of energy and then is manufactured into something that is meant to be used only once and then tossed (for instance aluminum cans, foil, or metal bottle tops). The world is not disposable and “away” is non-existent when it comes to garbage. It all goes somewhere and again this is at great expenditure of energy and increasing pollution.

All of this means that at our house, a lot of stuff that ordinarily gets tossed in the trash can by other people gets put into a bag, a drawer, or box for later use. There is a bag of bottle caps, twist ties, toilet paper tubes, and assorted lids on top of our fridge. In the pantry there is usually a plastic bag hanging up to dry, and an assortment of vegetable/bulk bags are available for my next trip to the co-op for groceries. I usually stick them in the canvas shopping bags so I remember to take them. Also in the pantry are pasta sauce and salsa jars that I reuse to fill with bulk items from the co-op –rice, millet, beans, oats and so on. I use an old aluminum ‘to-go’ container as a folding funnel to fill the jars with (this works so well and hardly a grain gets dropped).  

It also means that I refuse to buy certain things like aluminum foil. I stopped buying it years ago and have found it to be completely superfluous. The same thing goes for plastic wrap. We always have enough jars and containers that it is also unnecessary. Our dietary choices too help us eliminate some waste.  We eat more whole foods, we’ve begun grow some of our own vegetables and avoid drive-throughs like the plague which has decreases the amount of packaged foods we buy. There is still room for improvement for me as I seek to find further areas to refuse and reduce. I look forward to the journey.

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