4 Rs and the ten items you can easily replace!

We all want it quick and simple in life. Quick meals, quick drinks to rush to work, in China quick takeaway breakfast in the office. Light, compact packs and individual doses of everything.

I’m not denouncing whether our products are tasty, handy, healthy or not (another topic). The main problem is with the afterlife of our choices, which we seldom think of and relieve ourselves from through the big “recycling” blur. This we often see as a miracle-solution to our problems of resource disposal and overconsumption. Reality is far more nuanced.

I’m hardly able to provide a more detailed table of the basic impact each resource has and to decompose this resource in its dozens if not hundreds of different types. These numbers are an approximation, not taking account of informal waste burning, recycling and unavailable figures in many parts of the world.

Most of the figures come from Ecole Polytechnique de Lausanne and their “Municipal Solid Waste Management in Developing Countries” free online course, which I recommend to anyone who’d be interested in the subject (thank you Coursera).

Find comparisons between developed, developing and poorer countries right here.

Production Resources

Recycling resources and energy cost

Recycling rate

Decomposition time

Newspaper (1 ton)

Energy sources

3.9 GJ

10.1 GJ (259%)

USA: 67%

EU: 72%

2 to 6 months.

Up to 5 years for milk or juice boxes.

The Arab Spring had just started.

Wood dry matter

830 kg

88kg (-89%)



21m3 (-53%)



215kg (367%)

CO2 emissions


489 kg (361%)


(1 ton)

Crude oil

161 kg

121 kg (-25%)

USA: 34%

EU: 73%

Between 1000 and 1 million years, it’s hard to guess as glass breaks into smaller, softer pieces.

We still find pieces of glass jars from the Antiquity.


55 Nm3

10.4  Nm3 (-81%)


0.24 m3

0.002 m3 (-99%)


68.9 kWh

38.4 kWh (-44%)

CO2 emissions

609 kg

403 kg (-34%)


(1 ton)

Crude oil

214 kg

0.6 kg (-100%)

Worldwide: 14%

The rate highly fluctuates between the types of plastic.

15 to 1000 years.

Back to the end of the Byzantine empire.


136 Nm3

25 Nm3 (-82%)


32 m3

1.4 m3 (-96%)


681 kWh

340 kWh (-50%)

Solid residues


32 kg (-400%)

CO2 emissions

870 kg

58 kg (-93%)


(1 ton)


Energy: -95% Worldwide: 69%

USA: 67%

80 to 100 years.

Back to Marie Curie.

The recycling rates we have mostly follow an encouraging trend, except for plastic. The cost of recycling itself, on the other hand, is often energy and resource intensive. Paper and cardboard lead the way.

Moreover, none of these materials are endlessly recyclable. Most of them are down-cycled into a lower quality material which leaves residues, until they finally lose all of their use value. The majority of waste still ends up in a landfill or in the sea, regardless of those efforts.

Beach trash wash-up, Cheung Chau island, Hong Kong.

Recycling is by no means wrong, but sadly it isn’t the most efficient solution.

We therefore end up with the two other Rs we hardly ever hear of: Reduce and Reuse. These concepts force us to reevaluate the habit we’re in of owning more new items, constantly, instead of maximizing our use of old ones.

If you dare, there comes the third R, Refuse, which you can try to apply to the ten following items.

1) Disposable bottles, especially the small ones. Not even 25% are recycled on the planet. Get a reusable one, preferably steel or inox.


2) Disposable cups at the office. Bring your mug, even better, get a cup with a lid on!


3) Plastic bags. Always bring a few fabric spares with you, just in case.


4) Sponges, a germ paradise, just smell yours. Get a washable cloth, reusable to infinity and beyond. If something is hard to scratch on, add hot water or baking soda on it, either will do the trick.


5) Bottled soap. Solid soap is often available in bulk or in big blocks. Savon de Marseille is the most neutral and effective option I’ve found till now. If you’re more ambitious you can also make your own. If you’re even more ambitious you can make your own shampoo too, or switch to sodium bicarbonate like me if you’re lazy. My hair still shines.


6) Gift-wrapping paper, the biggest culprit of the year, for Xmas 2011 the UK threw out enough miles of it to stretch nine times around the world. Use newspapers, or recycled papers you’ve customized yourself (I used a map, once)!


7) Juice boxesDifficult to recycle because of the plastic film inside and around them. Blend your own or go for fresh fruit!


8) Sopalin – paper towels, the worst example of “take four and throw’em”. Find fabric napkins and dish towels, they’ll stick around your family forever, even when they go out of fashion.


9) Kleenex tissues. If you can find them, go for the handkerchief. We’ve had some in my family for over 25 years. Or you can go to a fabric bulk shop, tear out a big piece of cotton and chop it up in squares – what we did.


10) Food to go in disposable packaging. One thing I love about China is their “dabao” culture, the fact that it’s normal to take away what your stomach can’t take any more after a meal.

The problem resides in the disposable plastic containers that are given to transport the food: their quality is very low so they are hardly reusable and they are ALL but recyclable.

Try to always have a spare container in your bag. I know. It’s a pain to always think about that, unless you just leave it there, till you finally need it, when you have to grab a quick snack, or because lunch was just too humongous to finish.


Ah the heck. I’ll add numbers 11 and 12!


11) Packaged fruit, vegetables and other staples, used then lost forever. If you have access to a bulk-store in the vicinity, try to make the transition to bringing your own bags and dosing how much you need of what.

Costs of staples will crumble down before you know it.

If you are in the US I recommend this fantastic app to locate bulk stores and for those in China, it is very easy to find a local market nearby where everything can come in bulk: fruit, vegetables, tofu, meat, fish, nuts, rice, other cereals, flour, sugar, herbs, spices, even sodium bicarbonate (miracle ingredient). This is also the main opportunity I have to chat in Chinese with locals and actually get to know them better. Most of them are women, who sell what their husbands grow on a small patch of land in the city or on the outskirts. We have a lot to learn from them in terms of more local agriculture.

For everyone, the Common Supported Agriculture (CSA) schemes are probably the best initiative that has ever reached hypeness in cities. You basically pay a lump sum for a period of time (a few months to a whole year), to which you’ll have access to seasonal and local products that you can pick up each week.

En France il vous suffit de regarder sur le site de la coopérative Biocoop, qui vous indiquera la plus proche de chez vous. Autrement, rendez-vous au marché du dimanche ou au sein d’une Association pour le Maintien d’une Agriculture Paysanne (AMAP) !

Last but not least.

12) Straws! Purely aesthetic, and because of their size they easily end up in the oceans, winding up in an animal’s stomach. We systematically refuse them, unless they’re dumped in the drink before we’ve had time to react. If you’re in Europe or America you can easily find a steel or a bamboo one online for home cocktails.

The issue of organic waste is yet another matter that shall be discussed in another article.

I took this advice step by step, not banning all of those things at once, and I still make exceptions when there is no alternative.

If you try to follow five of these tips… you’ll be surprised at how addictive it becomes, and how rewarding it will be to see your bin volume reduce.

This list can expand to hundreds of items, feel welcome to add them =)


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