Making Sense of the Three Rs for a Healthier Planet

A collective consciousness around the perilous state of our planet has emerged over the last two decades. While corporations have considered how to operate in a greener fashion, seeking to use less plastic as one example, social marketing has instilled the importance of recycling on most consumers. In fact, today over 60% of US households have recycling bins. With less non-recyclable plastic on the market along with single stream recycling taking hold in most communities, it has never been easier to “do one’s part” in helping protect our environment.

But when it comes to the mantra of the three Rs “reduce, reuse, recycle,” well known and recitable by most elementary school aged children, all three behaviors are not created equally. The catchy alliteration actually represents a hierarchy of value starting with where there is the most impact – less consumption – and ending on recycling where there is the least impact.


The ability to reduce the need for or dependence on a certain good is the ideal way to go greener. In the case of a household seeking to operate in a more sustainable manner, consider as one example, the switch to bulk purchases of re-fillable cleaning agents. Or better yet, switching to homemade cleaner using vinegar. This reduction behavior is at the top of the hierarchy as it eliminates the need to source raw materials along with the energy needed to produce the good all the way through to end of life.


Moving one step down the value chain is the behavior of reuse. Where we cannot reduce our need for a good, are there opportunities to reuse a good already produced? This approach, also known as circularity, has gained significant traction in Europe with the US showing increased adoption in recent years. Consider the origins of Netflix which was as a rental provider of DVDs – once this concept was proven out, exchanges started to pop up in other consumer sectors including toys, clothing, beauty and more. Social marketing has effectively changed the persona of someone who shops for pre-owned goods from that of someone that is “cost conscious” to someone who is “earth conscious.”

Reuse – or rent – is an ideal approach for extending the lifespan of both high and low value goods. Back to the Netflix example, why purchase a movie I may only watch once? In the case of high value goods such as AeroSafe’s thermal containers, reuse is a smart approach because it affords a manufacturer or distributor access to high performance packaging. Here circularity amortizes the investment over several turns enabling the benefit of thermal protection for every single recipient.


Where goods must be procured via purchase, the ability to recycle components brings value to the sustainability equation. Recycling is the process of converting waste products into new materials or goods. The final act of recycling a good often happens out of sight and ultimately requires some amount of blind faith. Consider cardboard corrugate. At AeroSafe we recycle countless loads of clean corrugate during the shipper refurbishment process. But a college dorm seeking to recycle pizza boxes likely wouldn’t have the same outcome since greasy corrugate cannot be recycled. Instead, these pizza boxes end up in a landfill despite the material being otherwise recycle-friendly and a well-intentioned consumer thinking s/he is doing the right thing.

As our planet continues to heat up, consider which R can be most impactful.

The merits of reduction must be evangelized. Let's collectively try and stop finding joy in overconsumption and actively look for ways to reduce our need for and dependence on goods, regardless of any perceived financial bargain. Look for increased gamification models and promotions to help consumers understand how their decisions to consume less lead to better eco outcomes – this may replace the shopper’s euphoria of a new purchase.

Look for a bigger, better circular economy. With supply chain issues continuing to ebb and flow along with staggering inflation, many consumers are thinking differently in the post COVID landscape. These days nearly every class of consumer good has a reuse or rental angle to it with the overarching message of doing good for the earth (a far cry from “being cheap”).

Keep recycling as a back pocket alternative. When a new good is a necessity, what are the options for its end of life? What transformation is possible? Too many times recycling is both the beginning and the end of an individual’s green behavior, egged on by claims that feel and sound good, but may contribute very little by way of eco-savings. The recycling bin should become the last stop for a good, not the first.


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