Practicing the Three Rs

Colleen Hetzel
Do It Green! Magazine

Most of us have heard of at least one of the three environmental R’s – Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. Minnesota has one of the highest recycling rates in the United States. The recycling rate was over 47% in 1999. However, reducing and reusing waste is harder to quantify. Waste reduction or “source reduction” is defined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as “any change in the design, manufacturing, purchase, or use of a material or product (including packaging) to reduce its volume or toxicity before it becomes municipal solid waste.” Simple examples of waste reduction are buying juice in a concentrate form and mixing it with water at home instead of buying pre-mixed juice in a bottle or printing information on both sides of a piece of paper rather than using two sheets. Reuse is defined as “the use of a product more than once in the same form, either for the same purpose – such as refilling a soft-drink bottle at the bottling company — or for a different purpose — such as reusing an empty peanut butter jar as a container for leftover food.” Usually reusing a product not only prevents the old product from entering the waste system but it also avoids the consumption of new resources to make a new product. However, quantifying reduction and reuse can be difficult. The traditional system for tracking waste follows the life of a product in a straight line from creation to disposal. This system, however, is poorly suited for tracking waste trends that do not follow such a direct path.


What does it mean to reduce waste? If the EPA’s definition does not work for you, here is another: reducing waste can be defined simply as making less garbage. Becoming proficient at waste reduction boils down to changing some habits. For example, making a sandwich for lunch instead of taking a Lunchables or buying items such as cereals or laundry detergent in bulk. Although these changes may not seem significant when you do it at first, the benefits will add up over time.

Sometimes reducing waste can save some time and grief as well. Get a lot of junk mail? Who doesn’t, right? Folks who have taken the time to get their name and address registered with the Direct Marketing Association’s Mail Preference Service, that’s who! To learn more about this, go online at or call 212-768-7277. Another good opportunity for reducing waste is in your yard. Most of us mow our lawns far more often than we need to. The ideal length for grass is 3 to 3.5 inches high. Keeping grass at this height will not only save time from mowing, but will also reduce the amount of watering you’ll need to do because the grass will develop deeper roots, allowing them to reach more water during dry periods. You can also reduce the need for fertilizers by leaving the clippings on the lawn where they can return nutrients to the soil.

Like any new habit, learning to reduce waste takes some practice and some learning, but it’s definitely worth the effort!


Reduction and reuse often go hand in hand. An example of reuse is using a cloth napkin instead of a paper napkin so that it can be used more than once. You’ve probably heard about the grocery bag debate, “paper or plastic,” right? Well, there’s a third option – pick up a sturdy cloth shopping bag and use it over and over again with no more worries about ripping! Another good example of reusing is renting or borrowing something that you don’t need to use often, such as extra tables and chairs for a party or heavy-duty lawn care equipment. A terrific way to reuse is buying used items; sometimes you can get these in good shape for free! A great service offered in the metro area is the Twin Cities Free Market. The Free Market is a listing service for Twin Cities residents who want to get or give away free reusable goods for the home, garage and garden. It is part of an effort to reduce the amount of reusable goods being thrown away. Check it out at


Recycling is the environmental “R” with which people are most familiar. Recycling is a series of activities that consists of collecting recyclable materials that would otherwise be considered waste, then sorting and processing recyclables into raw materials, such as fibers for making paper products, and using those recycled materials to manufacture new products.

Using recycled material in new products is a great way to save natural resources; however, people need to “close the loop” by buying products made from recycled materials. Many recycled products have been developed over the years; recycled products are of equal or greater quality than products made from new or “virgin” materials. There are two types of recycling: high-end recycling and low-end recycling. High-end recycling is when the majority of the product can be processed into a new product that is highly desirable. An example of this is PET bottles to a PET fleece. Low-end recycling is when you create a product that does not use as much recycled product or is not as desirable. An example of this is recovering the lead found in cathode ray tubes (CRTs) in a lead smelting process instead of using a glass-to-glass recycling process.

Recycling has become a regular habit for many Minnesotans since legislation promoting it was enacted in 1989; the metro area now has a recycling rate of 48.2%, which includes credits for waste reduction and management of yard waste. Greater Minnesota (the area outside the Twin Cities) has a recycling rate of 46.7%. This brings the state to an average 47.2% recycling rate, collecting nearly 2.2 million tons of recyclable materials – paper, metal, glass, plastic and more. By law, Minnesota counties must promote recycling and ensure that all residents, including those in multi-family dwellings, have convenient opportunities to recycle.

To learn more about the policies for collecting recyclables in your area, contact your county or city recycling coordinator. This information can usually be found on your garbage collection bill if you have curbside recycling service or you can visit the Office of Environmental Assistance’s county contact web site at or call 800-877-6300.

Reduce Reuse Recycle

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