How to navigate sustainable living

9 steps to help navigate sustainable living

If you want to reduce your impact on the planet but are feeling overwhelmed by the challenge of sustainable living, remembering these 9 Rs can help.

Making sustainable choices in our lives can be tricky. There are so many ethical issues to juggle and so much conflicting information about sustainable living. When being a ‘conscious consumer’ is such a minefield, what can we do to avoid getting completely overwhelmed or disheartened?

I’m a massive over-thinker, so I love systems and models that help to keep me focused. One of the models that has really helped me on my sustainable journey is the 9 Rs of sustainability.

Originally it was the 3 Rs of sustainability (reduce, reuse, recycle) but this number has grown as collective thinking around the subject has developed. You’ll find different variations of the Rs model but I go with the one that encapsulates the fundamentals of sustainable living in the most concise way.

What are the 9 Rs of sustainability?

The 9 Rs of Sustainability model (see below) can help us to focus our efforts in the right (most effective) places.

Rethink / Respect
Refuse
Reduce
Rehome
Reuse
Repair / Repurpose
Restore
Recycle
Rot

While all of the Rs are important, we should consider them in order, starting from the top. 

For instance, by rethinking our approach and respecting our planet, it then becomes easier to consume less (refuse and reduce), take care of what we already have (reuse, rehome and repair/repurpose), give back to the planet (restore) and waste less (recycle and rot).

Here’s my take on the 9 Rs…

Rethink / respect

The first step is to rethink our behaviours and respect resources. By changing our approach here, the steps further down the list become much easier.

Rethink:

  • Question your beliefs about sustainable living
  • Recognise the barriers you create for yourself that prevent you achieving your goals
  • Consider whether you really need something before purchasing it
  • Borrow / rent / buy second-hand instead of buying new, wherever possible

Respect:

  • Be conscious of the resources (raw materials, energy, people’s time, etc) that go into producing the things we buy and use
  • Take care of your possessions
  • Protect nature

Refuse

Everything we consume has an environmental cost and we are consuming at an unsustainable rate. By recognising what we actually need and cutting what we don’t need out of our lives, we can significantly reduce our impact on the planet.

From refusing plastic straws to boycotting fast fashion, there are many ways to try to change the status quo and lead by example.

Here is a great article by 1 Million Women: How can we avoid overconsumption in our everyday lives?

Also see 5 household products you don’t need

Reduce

There will be things that you can’t cut out of your life completely. The next step is to consider what you can reduce. By consuming less, we demand less of the world’s finite resources and we produce less waste. Here are some examples of what you can do:

  • Cut down your meat and dairy intake
  • Drive less (you might need your car for work but perhaps you can walk, cycle or use public transport for other purposes)
  • Give experiences as gifts instead of physical things

Reuse

Anything designed to be used once and then thrown away is pretty awful for the environment. While you might not be able to eliminate all single-use items from your life, there are many opportunities to reuse, for example:

  • Take your own carrier bags, produce bags and containers to the shops
  • Carry a reusable bottle/cup to refill with water or buy a hot drink when you’re on the go
  • Use what you have first, e.g. reuse takeaway containers and glass jars to store leftovers, homemade preserves etc

Rehome

Everyone likes a good declutter from time to time. However, it’s important to consider what we do with our unwanted possessions. Sell or donate items that are in useable condition but you no longer need or love. Don’t rush – take your time over decluttering, so you’re less likely to resort to throwing items away.

One man’s trash is another man’s treasure! Even broken items may be of use to someone who has the skills to repair/repurpose it (see the next step).

Received a gift that you don’t want but can’t return? Regift it to someone who would use it. We can often feel guilty about regifting things but it’s better that it gets used than sit in a cupboard gathering dust (think of all the resources that went into producing it).

Repair / repurpose

Before you throw away a broken item, consider if it can be mended. Repairing is often cheaper than replacing. If you’re not sure how, have a look to see if there’s a how-to video online. Though if it needs to be done by a qualified professional, such as an electrician, don’t attempt it yourself.

Have a look to see if there is a repair cafe in your area, where you can get most household items fixed for a small donation.

Old items that are no longer fit for purpose can often be repurposed and given a new lease of life. From turning wooden pallets into outdoor seating or using an old boot as a plant pot, with just a little creativity we can prevent many items going into landfill.

Restore

Human activities have had such a devastating effect on wildlife, scientists are now saying that biodiversity loss is a bigger crisis than climate change. We also need to restore vital carbon stores, such as rainforests, if we are to meet our carbon targets. Here are some ways you can help:

  • Plant a tree – or many! (community groups around the UK are organising tree planting sessions – have a look for one near you)
  • Create a mini wildflower meadow in your garden (bees love them!)
  • Support organisations working to protect and restore nature, e.g. fund their work, sign their petitions and share their posts

Recycle

For years recycling was sold as the solution to our overconsumption. But if  your bath is overflowing, you don’t reach for the mop to clean up the mess, you turn off the tap! We need to reduce our consumption first and foremost.

That said, recycling is still important. We should do everything we can to get the most out of existing resources.

Educate yourself on what can and can’t be recycled. Some materials can be recycled infinitely (e.g. aluminium and glass), others can only be recycled a few times and only to be made into ‘lesser’ products (e.g. paper and some types of plastic). Some materials can’t be recycled at all (e.g. some plastics).

See Recycling symbols explained and What plastic can I recycle?

Rot

Compost as much of your organic waste as possible. If you have a garden or allotment, you can create a compost bin easily out of reclaimed wooden boards or pallets. If you don’t have any outdoor space, you could set up a wormery – they can be small enough to fit in a cupboard and don’t produce the bad smells that a compost bin does. Another option is a bokashi bin.

Any of these options will help you to limit how much of your food waste ends up in landfill, where it will produce methane (a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide). As a bonus, you will also get some free compost and/or liquid plant food. It’s a win-win!

If you can’t compost food scraps yourself, have a look to see if you can share your waste with someone in your area who can.

The 9 Rs of sustainability

The 9 Rs of sustainability are a guide, not a rule book. They don’t give us all the answers (what does?) but they can help to simplify what is a very complex multitude of issues, so that we can start making positive changes in our lives, without getting bogged down by confusion and overwhelm.

Just remember, it’s important not to get hung up on mistakes you make along the way. Chalk them up to experience, change your behaviour if you need to and move on.


“Forgive yourself for not knowing what you didn’t know before you learned it.” 

Maya Angelou

I hope you find the 9Rs of sustainability as helpful as I have done on my own sustainable living journey. I’d love to hear your thoughts about this post, in the comments below.


Photo by Jamie Street on Unsplash

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