The 5 Principles of Zero Waste


When first getting started with zero waste it's helpful to first know the basic foundation of the lifestyle.

This page will teach you the five fundamental principles of zero waste and how they change your everyday habits and routines. They are endearingly referred to as the 5 R’s and were first introduced by Bea Johnson — the blogger behind Zero Waste Home. They are now widely recognized by the zero waste community and utilized in creating solutions to live a more sustainable life.

1. Refuse

By refusing, a lot of waste is eliminated at the source. The idea is to refrain from accepting free stuff that becomes instant waste. In order to find and actively incorporate reusable alternatives into your daily life, a bit of practice and preparation is required.

There are some things you can choose to refuse on a daily basis:

  • disposable coffee cups

  • plastic utensils

  • straws

  • newspapers

  • takeout containers

  • plastic shopping bags

  • physical receipts

As a society, we are conditioned to say yes to free souvenirs, free coupons, free magazines, free flyers, and anything else that is free. This principle encourages you to rethink that — take only what you really need and reject the rest. In all honesty, how many free things are truly useful and not just promotional materials to sell you even MORE products and services you don’t need?  

Look at what you're currently accepting to make yourself more willing to refuse. Instead of single-use cups, try reusable ones. Whenever you see flyers, take a picture with your phone to save it for later instead of taking on additional waste.

There are thousands of ways to refuse without missing out - it’s all about a shift inhabits. Refusing is a great first step towards living more sustainably. In the world of zero waste, we tend to refer to them as “swaps”. Check out my list of 50+ zero waste swaps (plus a free PDF download!) to help you start to refuse unnecessary waste in your life.

2. Reduce

Reducing is all about mindful purchasing and adopting minimalistic habits.

In order to follow this principle, you need to really consider what you truly need so you can make purchases less often. To do this you must identify your actual needs and be realistic - this often requires a bit of unlearning. One of the main learning curves to zero waste is learning how to live with less.

Before making purchases, ask yourself whether you actually need the product. When you do, consider its quality for what is available within your budget. A well-made product will last longer, meaning you won't have to repurchase as often. Reducing is also about ensuring that your possessions last a long time.

By following cleaning instructions and labels you are being responsible for your possessions and help them to last longer. Purchasing second-hand is also a great way to reduce ownership of new items and eventual waste.

3. Reuse

This third principle — reuse — works in conjunction with the word repair. In cases where you're considering throwing something away for new materials, consider whether it could be reused or repaired; both in its current use or in another creative way.

This principle should be applied to every area of your life including clothing, electronics, and home goods. For instance, in the event, your phone or laptop breaks, seek out repair options first, rather than purchasing a new one. The reuse principle comes with the challenge to rethink your purchasing habits and the drive behind ‘new’.

Our society constantly bombards us with advertising for the next best thing. Reuse teaches you to become mindful of unethical marketing practices and rethink your purchasing habits as a whole.

In addition to reusing, you can also sell or donate used items to loving homes instead of dumping them. Consider hosting a yard sale, using the Facebook marketplace, or asking your friends and family if they need anything you don't.

Reusing is all about making the most of the materials that are already in circulation instead of relying on new ones. By shopping secondhand, joining sharing programs for tools, getting a library card, and being in a community with your neighbours you will be saving a lot of unnecessary waste.

4. Recycle

The fourth of the 5 Rs is to recycle. While it is certainly not the most sustainable principle (in fact, it's probably the most misunderstood) it is still better for items ending up in the landfill.

The current recycling infrastructures are rather limited, and many times recyclable materials are actually transformed into low-quality, disposable items that are eventually discarded. The rate at which humans consume and discard single-use disposable goods is at an all-time high, which means that recycling infrastructure cannot keep up. Recycling materials that cannot be turned into new products end up either in landfills locally, in landfills abroad, or in waste-to-energy programs. Recycling itself is an energy-intensive process. 

The Zero Waste movement sees recycling as a last resort to be used only after reducing, refusing, and reusing all other options.

To learn more about the different recycling symbols on the everyday products you buy, check out my article on Getting to Know the Recycling Symbols.

5. Rot

Principle number five is Rot, also known as compost. The absolute best way to return nutrients to the earth and dispose of organic waste. So often organic waste gets mixed in with material goods that end up in the trash and are transported to landfills where they are unable to break down. Instead, the organic material produces a high amount of methane gas which contributes to air pollution.

Composting can be done at home with the proper tools (listed here) or through a municipal green bin program. Read my step-by-step guide to hot and cold garden composting here.

By purchasing products and organic food materials made out of compostable materials and that use compostable packaging, can greatly reduce an individual’s waste production without needing to sacrifice personal necessities.

In addition to those 5Rs I would add, regift, refill, repeat.


Think about all the new clothes or things you own around the house. Ask yourself if anybody in your life could make use of those things. Holidays are a great time to regift some of those things you don’t need but maybe are still in perfect condition.


Refilling can save so much plastic from the landfill, but unfortunately, not everybody has access to a refill station. If you have the possibility, choose to refill rather than buying new. My favorite things to refill are laundry detergent, vinegar and all the bulk staples. I made a list of things that I refill and saves me money.


Repeating an outfit should not frown upon. In fact, we should all wear our clothes until not possible anymore. Did you know that in the past, clothes were made to last? Fast fashion made sure that clothes are easy to replace and easy to wear off. You can read more about fast fashion and how it is hurting the planet in this article I wrote a while ago. Next time, maybe look into buying a quality item and repeat wearing it till not possible anymore.

What is zero waste, and why is it important?

Zero waste is the idea of reintegrating all products into the current system rather than getting rid of them. Viewing existing materials as valuable instead of disposable, and making the most of what we have now.

On a large scale, this requires restructuring our current priorities, policies and economies. A circular economy reframes current structures to maximize the redesign and reuse of existing natural resources and materials.  

On a smaller but still important scale, the zero waste lifestyle can be implemented to regain control of personal consumption and encourage sustainable living. The goal is to not only focus on the singular impact of the lifestyle but to take a stand for the attention and action of influential parties. By boycotting mass-produced packaging and single-use plastic, the zero waste movement and those who partake in the lifestyle are taking a radical stance.

Choosing to challenge or reject current waste practices is a strong way to advocate for the change individuals would like to see in the world. If there is less demand, less will be produced. 

It is important to promote zero waste in order to ensure that our planet will be able to sustain itself in the future. It is no secret we are running out of resources and pollution is at an all-time high. It’s imperative to break the unsustainable production/consumption cycle once and for all. 

The power lies in the hands of every individual. By making a conscious effort to support a single action at a time, we can make a difference. This means purchasing sustainably, spreading awareness about reducing waste and supporting responsible disposal and increasing the consumption of local, organic products.

You might be interested in learning the history and how zero waste came to be. To learn more, check out one or more of these other helpful informational pages:

Zero Waste: Everything you Need to Know

Zero Waste Movement: A Complete Guide

Zero Waste Glossary