Kiwis and the 5 ‘R’s

It’s said that Kiwis are sadly well behind the world in recycling and resource reclamation. Of the more than 17 million tonnes of waste produced by Kiwis every year, almost 13 million tonnes – a staggering 76% – goes straight to landfill. Even worse, the Ministry for the Environment believes as much as two-thirds of all recyclable materials in Aotearoa end up in landfill, whereas most comparable countries manage to waste less than one-third of their recyclables.

It’s a huge problem that needs some big action to solve, so you can imagine our excitement at hearing about the Ministry for the Environment’s container return scheme proposal, which (in part) proposes to incentivise people to recycle beverage containers. We know from our own National Litter Audit in 2019 that beverage containers make up 66% of recognisable branded litter and 24% by volume of all litter in Aotearoa. Imagine if all this was recycled!

But ideally, recycling should always be at the end of a chain of other actions that come before it.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle…and more

Most Kiwis are familiar with the simple ‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle’ concept of waste reduction. It’s straightforward, easy-to-remember and practical for the everyday person. But it’s a bit simplistic these days, and it’s since been expanded to 5 ‘R’s. Let’s go through them.

Refuse. The best way to minimise wastage is to refuse it in the first place. This applies very much to packaging, for example refusing a single-use plastic bag or a free sample to avoid disposing of it later down the line.

Sometimes it’s not convenient or even possible to refuse extra packaging, we get that. But with enough people saying no to an unnecessary item, change is very possible – look at the backlash against plastic straws a few years ago. Companies and corporates, driven by their customer choices and demands, will often take notice in a world better tuned to the environment.

Take ideas to your workplace too, by finding suppliers who are environmentally conscious: are goods produced sustainably, is the supplier willing to reduce or eliminate packaging?

Reduce. We’re all consumers in a buy-more-pay-later world, but this doesn’t mean we can’t try to consciously reduce our consumption. Simple steps are the easiest: try to steer away from impulse purchases, resist those individually-wrapped snacks in favour of bulk items, and use the minimum amount required to avoid unnecessary wastage.

If you’re a new parent you’ll actually end up saving big money by buying cloth nappies for your little one (disposable nappies represented the largest contribution to the estimated nationwide litter volumes in our 2019 National Litter Audit).

Reduction can extend into your house. Saving water when you’re brushing your teeth or doing the dishes, or just using eco-cycles on your appliances can make a difference.

Energy efficient appliances save money for you and power generation costs – in 2019 alone, such appliances helped Americans offset $39 billion in energy costs and saved 500 billion kilowatts/hours of electricity (for comparison, cooking a roast in your oven might take 3KW and an hour to do so).

So switching that light off when you’re not in the room will not only save you a few cents, but combined with thousands of others who do the same thing, the cumulative effects really do add up!

Reuse. For the average consumer, it’s often convenient to simply throw something away because it’s convenient, but this forms a bad and dangerous habit. Take a moment to consider whether you could you donate that item to someone else who needs it, or reuse an item in another context.

Don’t forget that re-use can be as simple as replacing single-use cutlery with regular stainless steel cutlery, using rechargeable batteries or repurposing packaging materials for when you need to send a fragile item.

Repurpose. Otherwise known as upcycling, you might need to think outside the box to repurpose items. It can be as easy as making a simple, stapled notepad from your office’s wasted printer paper, using cardboard boxes for storing supplies, and utilising jars and coffee tins for storing pens and knick-knacks.

Recycle. The last best step for materials. Once you’ve gone through all of the other R’s, recycling is the most environmentally friendly waste disposal method. Not only are resources salvaged, but the energy savings can truly mount up:

  • It only takes 5% of the energy to recycle an aluminium can rather than creating one from new materials
  • Glass is 100% recyclable, can be recycled endlessly, and recycling just one glass bottle saves enough energy to light a 100-watt lightbulb for four hours
  • Recycling cardboard only takes 75% of the energy required to make new cardboard.

Are there more ‘R’s?

Depending on who you talk to, there are a bunch of other R words that can be slotted in next to the typical 5Rs. Here are some of the most common.

Rethink. Taking the time to consider what you’re buying, and how you can make more eco-friendly choices.

Regifting. Everyone has received a birthday or Christmas present that just wasn’t right for them; whether it’s bad taste or it just missed the mark, you just don’t want it, but it’s also brand new and too good to throw out. So consider whether a friend or family member might enjoy it more, and whether the item could be regifted.

Failing that, charity Op Shops will often take quality items that can be on-sold, allowing them to make a few much-needed dollars and leaving you feeling good.

Rot. According to the Compost Collective approximately half of what is sent to landfill from Auckland households is actually compostable – food scraps, garden clippings and those bananas you meant to eat that went brown and mushy. It’s not just Auckland, but food waste makes up a significant part of the waste which ends up in landfills across Aotearoa. Turning your kitchen scraps into compost saves a huge tonnage of food ending up uselessly in landfill, releasing methane for no reason. It’s good fertiliser for the garden, too.

In fact, the separation of food waste by businesses is one of the three proposed Ministry for the Environment programmes to help transform recycling in New Zealand.

Don’t have a garden space? There are businesses and even individuals all over the country who can take scraps for their own composting needs, or even for chickens. Check out for more.

Repair. We live in a throw-away society, but repairing an item is often cost-effective and easier than you might think. Sewing up that small rip rather than replacing the shirt helps slow down the whole fast fashion industry. Plus, there’s a sense of satisfaction from fixing an otherwise perfectly fine tool, favourite piece of clothing or item of furniture so it can have a second life.

An American singer and social activist Pete Seegar went even further: “If it can’t be reduced, reused, repaired, rebuilt, refurbished, refinished, resold, recycled or composted, then it should be restricted, redesigned, or removed from production.” What a different world we’d live in then!

In reality it doesn’t really matter how many ‘R’s there are – the key is to minimise our waste where we can, on our journey to a zero waste society.

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