What are the 7 R’s of sustainability?

As it turns out, there is little agreement on which r-words make up the 7 R's of sustainability. It all depends on your perspective.

We all know the slogan, "Reduce, reuse, recycle," also known as the "3 R's" of recycling. I learned the 3 R's at an educational pep rally hosted at my elementary school in the mid-eighties. We danced with people dressed up as recycling bins, took home bags of plastic swag (gasp!), and learned how to sort our waste into piles of white paper, newspaper, glossy paper, plastic by type, metal by type, and glass by color. After that, the 3 R's joined all of the other PSAs ("D.A.R.E. to be drug free!") that have been lodged in my memory bank. 

This was before any all-in-one recycling collection system had come to my semi-rural neighborhood, but we had a recycling center where you could drop off your own items. My mom adopted recycling habits almost immediately. Our garage started to look like a sorting facility with a series of bins piled high with diverted waste matter. 

Fast forward to today, over twenty years later, and the list of sustainability R's has grown. For some, 7 R's is the right balance. This seems logical because our working memory capacity can only hold around seven items. However, I've seen other lists grow to 9 R's. Interestingly, after comparing 10 assorted lists (links below), I noticed that none of the constellations of R's are exact matches. When I aggregated the complete list of R's, I came up with a total of 28 R's and an S.

Apparently, we don't all agree on what the 7 R's should be. This means you can mix and match to find the best fit for your sustainable lifestyle. In order of least to most frequently included, here's the full list of sustainability verbs that I found:


Word(s) used once: re-gift, re-source, reclaim, recondition, redesign, refill, refurbish, rehome, reject, remake, remember, replace, replant, resell, respect, restore, share

Word(s) used twice: remanufacture and remove

Word(s) used three times: return and rot

Word(s) used four times: repair, repurpose, and rethink

Word(s) used five times: recover

Word(s) used seven times: refuse

Word(s) used eight times: reduce

Word(s) used ten times: recycle and reuse


Some snappy insights about making a sustainability R's list

First of all, welcome "share"! You're not quite an r-word, but you definitely fit the spirit of these lists. Sharing is an excellent way to tackle the exhausting resource waste that goes into manufacturing new products. Plus, the sharing-economy has proven that subscription or per-use sales criteria are profitable models for businesses. 

Next, I feel sorry for "reduce." I mean, what happened? His fellow "recycle" and "reuse" from the original 3 R's are both included in all of the ten lists I looked at. Some people must have decided "reduce" was just third wheel and axed him. I hope he joins the ranks of your 7 R's because reduction is a way to "dematerialize," which ultimately lowers the amount of raw materials and resources gleaned from the planet. 

I also noticed that a few of these r-words may produce an unintended negative connotation. For instance, "replace," "reject" and "remove" might call to mind a standard trip to the landfill. Watch out for making such a faux pas in your own list.   

Some r-words listed are nearly synonyms, such as "re-gift" and "rehome." The only difference would be that you could technically "rehome" something without the other party knowing. It might suggest that you can just ditch your old furniture in someone else's lawn in the middle of the night. Out of sight, out of mind, right? Wrong. I wouldn't recommend that strategy. 

A few of these r-words clearly present a state of mind ("rethink") or attitude ("respect") while others present complex procedures that require a well-established infrastructure ("remanufacture," "recycle"). This shows a range of complexity that could influence how you approach sustainable materials use. 

Finally, it's clear that the spectrum of possibilities has expanded to embrace a full zero waste potential. If we "rethink," then surely we can find a way to eliminate a need ("remove"), develop a defense mechanism to the status quo ("refuse"), and think of ways to choose products made of materials that naturally decompose ("rot") or extend the life of a product ("repair").

"Remember" was included in one of the lists to suggest that we need to "remember" to bring a reusable bag to the store as an alternative to the available plastic option. However, the word inspired me to think of my own definition. I think we should "remember" the history of materials use and draw inspiration from the past. 

No less than a century ago, plastic didn't even exist on the mass market, and a wide range of biodegradable material options were available for consumption. People's habits towards consumption were different. My grandmother sewed and repaired her own clothes, for example. In older times, people once wove baskets and used ceramics to store and carry their food products. Numerous handcrafted skills and production methods have been replaced by machines. A historical perspective helps us draw inspiration from the past, beyond the limited scope of reality that we currently live in. 

That leads me to my own contribution to the list of Rs which is reimagine. Ultimately, as individuals interested in sustainable innovations, we are undergoing a process of creative development and transformation. We should think of what's possible, taking into considering the wide range of options, and envision something even better for the future. The future needn't merely reproduce our narrow view of what's possible today. 

Lists of R's used in this article

Our Approach: The 7 R's in Peterborough

The Seven R's of Sustainability in AeromatiCo

9r Model Circular Economy in Changing Gears

The Seven R's of Zero Waste in Skip the Bag

The Seven R's of Recycling in Golden Plains Shire

Beyond reduce, reuse, recycle: The 9 R's of a sustainable life in Greenpeace Australia

Rs of Waste Management in Envirocities Mag

Practicing the '7R's Lifestyle' in Daily Citizen-News

The resource efficiency hierarchy in Sustain Success Ltd.

7 Ways to Dispose of your Surplus Equipment in Veracity Asset Management Group

Thanks for reading and let me know what words you'd put in your sustainability list in the comments!

Erica EllerComment