Three Green R’s reconsidered

reduce ruse recycleWe all know the three R’s of conservation, of course, but I wondered recently whether more of them might be useful.

I shared that thought with friends on and off facebook; most of their suggestions were good but they tended to be refinements or extensions of the first three, and the only one which seemed to deserve an equal standing was Repair, although Refuse nearly deserves a spot at the top of the list.

One respondent suggested that we should Rejoice in what we have already, and that’s a good thought, too. If we can be happy with what we’ve got, we’re well on the way to all of the other steps: we will reduce new acquisitions, we will re-use and repair our belongings, and in the end we will dispose of them respectfully.


The most significant consumption choice we make is whether to acquire an item in the first place.

  • Repudiate consumer culture.
  • Refuse to buy, or accept as commercial freebies, stuff you don’t need.
  • Reject unnecessary packaging.
  • Research before you buy so that you don’t buy stuff you can’t use.


Re-using things in their original form for their original purpose is generally the highest level of re-use. And the more times we can re-use an item, the longer we postpone the need to replace it with a new one.

Lower levels such as repurposing are better thought of as high-level recycling, since they usually imply a loss of original function.


We can extend the life of our belongings by looking after them, and then by fixing them rather than throwing them out. If we can double the useful lifespan of each shirt, table, car or house we own, we can halve our lifetime consumption of such goods, and halve the waste of embodied energy they represent. We use different words for different kinds of repair. Here are some of them:

  • Renovate
  • Redecorate
  • Refurbish
  • Rejuvenate


When an object is beyond re-use and repair, recycling is better than dumping. But even here, higher-level recycling is better than treating things as raw materials for industrial processes.

  • Repurpose objects to give them a second life.


Once upon a time, according to the Buddhist scriptures (Kd 21.1.14), King Udena’s wife gave Ananda, the leader of a group of monks, a generous gift of 500 robes – without asking her husband’s permission. He wasn’t particularly happy about that, thinking that the gift would be wasted, so he interrogated Ananda:

“But what can you, honourable Ananda, do with so many robes?”

“I will share them, your majesty, with those monks whose robes are worn thin.”

“But what will you do, good Ananda, with those old robes that are worn thin?”

“We will make them into upper coverings, your majesty.”

“But what will you do, good Ananda, with those upper coverings that are old?”

“We will make these into mattress coverings, your majesty.”

“But what will you do, good Ananda, with those mattress coverings that are old?”

“We will make them into ground coverings, your majesty.”

“But what will you do, good Ananda, with those ground coverings that are old?”

“We will make them into foot-wipers, your majesty.”

“But what will you do, good Ananda, with those foot-wipers that are old?”

“We will make them into dusters, your majesty.”

“But what will you do, good Ananda, with those dusters that are old?”

“Having torn them into shreds, your majesty, having kneaded them with mud, we will smear a plaster-flooring.”

It’s a wonderful example of best-practice stewardship of possessions. History relates that King Udena was impressed – and so he should have been! – and all ended happily.

The principles apply equally to our stewardship of the world we inherited from our parents and will pass on to our children.

5 thoughts on “Three Green R’s reconsidered”

  1. More on Repair:

    …you’ve experienced some of the troubles modernity has offered: A “buy, use, and throwaway” model of producing and consuming goods — especially electronics. … On top of that, the “repair monopoly” by some manufacturers has created major limitations on the possibility of repairing devices. They’re either too expensive, require very specific tools to do the job, or are so complex that fixing it is not realistic.
    Meanwhile, grassroots initiatives such as repair cafés and restart parties have become very popular, using a “do it together” model, in which volunteer menders support the owners of broken items.
    Products that are not built to last or be repaired when they break are being challenged by the global Right to Repair movement…

  2. says:

    In less than two months, a ban on exporting Australia’s waste is due to begin and researchers say attention needs to shift to avoid creating waste, to stop the problem piling up in the first place.
    The Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering (ATSE), which develops researched-based policy advice, has recommended government grants and incentives target innovative designs, which avoid or minimise waste.
    “The end of a product’s first life ought to be disassembly and reassembly, or repair and repurpose,” ATSE chief executive Kylie Walker said.
    “Then only after all those things have failed, should we start looking at how do you melt down and recycle, or extract the component resources. …

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