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Does the triple-R rule (or its extended version like Reduce-Reuse-Repair-Recycle) apply to everything, in that order, as the most sustainable process?

Just wondering if you could think of any particular situation where a different sequence would makes more sense in terms of sustainability.

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This is a fun mental exercise - hopefully others can improve these examples, or come up with others.

Since we're looking at Reduce-Reuse-Repair-Recycle as an ordered cycle, moving backwards doesn't count; at each step, we've already determined that previous steps could not be taken.

Let's also be explicit about the inferred fifth step; sending goods to a landfill.

So, in this process, when would it be more sustainable to skip a given step?

  1. Reduce: That is, consume less of a necessary good. Cases where consuming more of a good would be more sustainable could be increased consumption of invasive species. If Australians replaced all meat in their diets with rabbit, could this solve the problem? However, glancing ahead to step four, we want to be careful not to create a market for rabbit. (1,2)
  2. Reuse: This one is easy: don't reuse lead pipes, CFC-based refrigerants, asbestos fire-proofing, etc. Take these items and skip straight to recycle (if possible) or landfill.
  3. Repair: It would be more sustainable to buy a new Honda Fit than to repair your Hummer -- this way you'll be reducing your consumption long-term. With your broken Hummer, it's best to skip over "repair" and go right to "recycle."
  4. Recycle: In some cases, recycling a product props up demand for something that sustainability would compel us to do without. Examples include animal ivory, and wood products from rainforests; it would be best to destroy these things. Plastic doesn't count, because you could recycle it into a permanent good (like polyester clothing or flower pots) as opposed to a consumable good (like food packaging).
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Reduce-Reuse-Recycle

The main exception I can think of is upcycling - rather than reuse a product, you recycle it into a better product. This is most obvious with computational electronics, where a 10 year old computer is likely to use a lot more electricity to do a worse job than a new one. Unfortunately recycling old computers is hard. So a better example might be a resistive electric hot water tank. If you have one, and especially if it has a problem, it's very likely better to replace it with a new heat pump one and recycle the old one.

A similar situation could occur with noxious plants and firewood. I have stayed on a farm where they were burning their way through a stand of honey locust trees (Gleditsia triacanthos). Once they discovered the trees, they killed them all we cut everything we could into firewood then transported it back to the firewood shed. They ended up with more firewood than they could store for any length of time. So they lit the stove and just kept it running. That way they got unlimited free hot water (and hot, clean burn), where the rest of the muck just got bulldozed into a pile and burned (in a very dirty fire). Reusing or recycling that timber would not have been appropriate (the "trunks" were only ~10cm diameter). Some of it probably rotted from being stored out in the rain, but they had lots.

I wonder whether some permaculture green mulching might be considered a violation of the "reduce rather than reuse" rule. You're growing plants specifically so you can re-use them, by digging them in after harvest.

Stepping outside the whole framework, I have heard people argue that if you are buying 100% renewable electricity, using more than you need to is a good thing because it helps make renewable electricity profitable. My response is that you're better off donating money to those companies directly, or buying greenhouse gas abatement certificates and hoarding them. But that "use more because of beneficial side effects" argument is, in a way, correct.

  • I'm really liking both answers, but I had to pick one unfortunately. I probably should have made this a community wiki!? – stragu Jun 1 '18 at 1:49

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