The Campaign That Educated a Generation About Plastic Packaging

By now, almost everyone is familiar with the three Rs—reduce, reuse, and recycle—as they relate to the environment and sustainability. It's a catchy way to remember the basics, but where did it come from? What is its history? What does it mean?

We are all more environmentally aware these days, partly due to reduce, reuse, recycle. This easy-to-remember phrase and easy-to-identify logo can be considered something that sparked the environmental movement, bringing it from theory into action.

How Did We Get the Three R's Slogan?

Like all great ideas, where this one came from is often debated. However, reducing waste and recycling what we can isn't a new idea. From the Great Depression up until World War II, people would stock up some materials, reuse or repurpose others as much as possible, and avoid using some things if you could.

In the 1950s, an economic boom led to an increase in how much trash Americans produced. Resources seemed unlimited and single-use items grew in popularity. It wasn't very long before people began to see the negative impact this was having on the Earth's eco-system.

Earth Day Sparks a Movement

The 1960s and 70s were a time of intense activism in the U.S., and many initiatives were born during this time. One of them, you guessed it, was Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. Inspired by the many "teach-ins" of the day, Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin organized the first national Earth Day held on April 22, 1970.

Close to 20 million Americans got together and celebrated at festivals, fairs, and other events created to bring attention to environmental issues. Earth Day became popular and is currently celebrated in more than 100 countries all over the globe. And as people continued to be concerned about environmental issues and conservation, the federal government responded by creating the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

At about the same time, Congress passed the Resource Recovery Act. The bill was written with the goal of shifting federal and community focus on the practices of recycling, resource recovery, and converting waste into energy. During the 70s, many other laws were enacted, from federal to local level, to promote conservation and raise awareness of these issues in the general public, but it is the Resource Recovery Act that is credited with the slogan Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.

The Three Rs in Action

As people began to learn more about how the three Rs work, more opportunities to practice them emerged. Communities and schools developed events, curriculums, and programs to help everyone understand the importance of protecting the Earth and its resources.

These days children and students from preschool to college study ways to be environmentally friendly and the fairly obvious consequences of not acting. Additionally, recycling programs have become easier and more common as no-sort practices and free bins have become commonplace. Even so, less than 10% of plastic waste is recycled. So although we are trying to practice sustainability, now is an excellent time to focus on getting back to the core values of the three Rs.

Reduce How Much Waste You Create

We create tons of trash every year, and it is getting seriously out of hand. Reducing the amount of waste you produce helps keep landfills from overflowing and the environmental damage that can cause. It's easy to forget about the amount of trash we produce once it is carried away from our homes.

Avoid using plastic cutlery, paper plates, and other single-use products as much as possible. Instead, choose compostable plates, sustainable cutlery, and reusable drinkware. Reducing your food waste is also important. We toss out nearly one-third of the food we buy each year, on average. Make a menu ahead of time and only buy what you need.

Reuse or Repurpose into Something New

Think about it. How many items in your home can be reused before they even reach the recycle bin? There's the obvious: clothing or canned goods can be donated. Then there are the ones that require some creativity, such as turning jars into candles or vases. Or using them as storage containers instead of plastic ones. And you can find a ton of ideas online when looking for ways to repurpose plastic bottles and bags, from hanging planters to making plarn (plastic yarn) and using it to make a bag or placemat.

Recycle What You Can

As much as you try, you're sure to have some waste. Some things can't be reused or repurposed. So, here's where you recycle as much as you can. The obvious items are plastic milk jugs, glass bottles, and cardboard boxes. But people often wonder about things that seem to be in a gray area, like pizza boxes, plastic bags, and even other plastic items.

Despite being made out of cardboard, greasy pizza boxes cannot be recycled because of their grease. And if you put them in with your paper recycling, it will contaminate the entire load. Plastic bags are also not recyclable in many curbside programs, they need to be taken back to the store and put the bin labeled for that purpose. Check the number code on your plastic items against what your local recycling program allows. Not all of them take every type of plastic.

Donate electronics--after erasing all your personal info--or take them to a recycling center or put them out on electronics recycling day. If you are not sure if something can be recycled, contact your local recycling or solid waste authority.

Questions to Ask before You Throw Something Away

When you do throw something away, ask yourself these questions first:

Can it be fixed? Some fixes are pretty simple if you just know how. With so much information available, you can find out how to fix almost anything, so learning how to fix something is a quick Internet search away.

Can it be donated or sold? Just because it is no longer useful to you, or you don't want it, doesn't mean it is no longer useful to someone else. Check out online platforms for selling or donating used items or take it to your local charity. One person's trash is another person's treasure, so your gently used items may find a new life with someone else.

Can I make it? You may be able to repurpose something you already have.

Can it be repurposed? Again, the Internet is full of DIY websites and tutorials. You can find inspiration along with directions on how to repurpose almost anything.

Although the Three Rs have certainly influenced us to be more conscientious of safeguarding our planet's health, we still have work to do. With a little bit of effort, we can all make a difference.