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The Not-So-New 3 Rs

“You know there is a problem with the education system when you realize that out of the 3 Rs only one begins with an R” ~Dennis Miller

Although the 3 Rs of education—Reading, wRiting and aRithmetic—may have been coined all the way back in 1825[i], the 3 Rs of the environment—Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle—are showing their age, too. While the origins of these “green” 3 Rs are directly traceable to the aftermath of World War II[ii], the related concepts of frugality, thrift, and economy go back much further. Indeed, for most of human history very few of us could afford to waste anything.

According to, the proverb “haste makes waste” was first recorded in this exact form in 1575[iii], yet in today’s affluent societies both haste and waste are everywhere. Videos like The Impossible Hamster and Annie Leonard’s The Story of Stuff show us the peril toward which we are rushing in our haste: We are rapidly approaching a “brick wall” of planetary resource limits. Beyond that wall wait the wolves of pollution, starvation, war, and disease, which are ever-ready to correct oversteps in most unpleasant ways.

It is often said that nothing is wasted in nature, that is, one organism’s waste becomes food for another organism. Life, death, decomposition, and new birth form the great recycling wheel of nature. Only humans embalm our dead and hide them in tombs of stone or metal in vain attempts to subvert nature’s cycles. Only humans take the raw materials of nature and turn them into rivers of toxic wastes and mountains of discarded products—many of these products used only once or for a very short time. Unfortunately, there are no natural organisms capable of fully decontaminating and recycling all of our feats of engineering.

Living within the bounds of nature is indeed a very old concept. Here’s a refresher course in these not-so-new 3 Rs, which are listed in order of preference:


waste and consumption, because our current consumption generates far too much waste that is far too toxic. Do more with less. If frugality doesn’t sound very appealing, just remember that above a certain level of security and comfort, more stuff does not equate with more happiness.[iv]


everything you can. Reuse involves the cleaning or repairing of an item in its current form, such as refilling an empty bottle, as opposed to breaking and re-melting glass to form another bottle. Recycling glass requires far more energy than reusing intact bottles. Durability is a key factor here: Purchase products that are made to last.


whatever is left over. Cradle-to-cradle design ensures that component parts will always have another use after the useful lifetime of a product. Items will degrade over time, so at some point a compost pile becomes the final recycling goal, from which tomorrow’s trees or soybeans may be grown.

This isn’t rocket science; it’s good old-fashioned, back-to-nature common sense. We still haven’t fully realized that we’re all astronauts on a spaceship called Earth[v], that we must reduce, reuse, and recycle,  just like astronauts visiting the International Space Station—and that no resupply ship is scheduled to visit Spaceship Earth!

“We are not to throw away those things which can benefit our neighbor. Goods are called good because they can be used for good: they are instruments for good, in the hands of those who use them properly.” ~Clement of Alexandria (c.150 - c. 215)

Kyle Crider is Manager – Environmental Operations at Education Corporation of America. He holds a Master of Public Administration degree with a double-emphasis in Urban Planning & Policy Analysis. He is also a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Accredited Professional, Neighborhood Development (LEED AP ND). He is currently in the Interdisciplinary Engineering Ph.D. Program at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.