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What are the 3Rs (for the environment)? Reduce, reuse, recycle

Jay Daggar: Last Updated 22nd May 2024
Posted In: Environment | Guides and Advice xx 31631

Defining sustainable packaging

Understanding sustainability and how it impacts your organisation

Whether you are a business looking to reduce the impact of your packaging or a consumer conscious of the environment, you may have wondered, “What are the 3Rs?”.

The 3Rs are reduce, reuse and recycle. Many believe the term dates back to the 1970s when people first became aware of the problems caused by waste and pollution. It is possible to apply the 3Rs to many applications, including packaging use. An extended 7Rs also includes remove, renew, revenue, and read.

A person in a white t-shirt holding a sign saying "Reuse, Reduce, Recycle"
The 3Rs are reduce, reuse and recycle

This guide provides you with further detailed information on precisely what the 3Rs are. It also covers how you can apply them to your packaging (and other products or materials that could cause an environmental impact), along with their origins and background information.



History and origins of the 3Rs

There is considerable debate on the origins of the “reduce, reuse, recycle” phrase. However, most agree that it dates back to the USA in the 1970s.

During the Vietnam War, many Americans became much more environmentally conscious. There was a particular focus on air pollution, water quality and how waste was handled and disposed of. This growing concern led to three significant events.

Firstly, a US senator from Wisconsin, Gaylord Nelson, organised the first Earth Day. This event occurred on 22nd April 1970, which saw as many as 20 million Americans uniting for the environmental cause.

A digger moving waste at a landfill site
the 3Rs term is believed to date to the 1970s in America, when the public became aware of the environmental impact of consumerism.

Secondly, partly due to the success of the event and the growing clamour for improved environmental practices, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was formed later in the same year.

Finally, in 1976, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act was passed by US Congress. It is at this time that many believe the 3Rs – reduce, reuse, recycle – were created.

The 3Rs

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

But what exactly is meant by reduce, reuse and recycle? And how can the 3Rs be applied to your business?

Considering your packaging, it is possible to treat any and all of the 3Rs as a strategy to improve your business’ sustainability.


It is often possible to reduce the amount of packaging that you use. For example, you can potentially replace polystyrene with cardboard fittings. Specialist bags, such as those which are ESD safe, can be eliminated by using anti-static boxes (such as Corstat). Often, when you analyse your packaging, you can begin to identify additional items that are not always necessary.

However, “reduce” can also mean looking at the amount of material that your packaging uses. Working with an experienced packaging designer on a value engineering brief can often reveal that you can use a lighter-weight material without affecting performance. Similarly, it may be possible to introduce different pack designs that are more efficient in their use of material.

An electronics device box within another box
Reducing packaging use can relate to materials, sizes, weights, types of packaging and more

Besides the environmental benefits of reducing your packaging (or material) use, there are several other business advantages.

These usually include lowering your ongoing costs through purchasing less material and items, improving packing times by eliminating certain products, lower transport costs due to lighter weights, and easier recycling for your customers.


Many businesses and individuals believe that recyclable packaging is the most sustainable. And whilst recycling packaging is crucial (particularly for corrugated packaging), surprisingly, reusable packaging can often be more environmentally friendly in the longer term.

The energy – and cost – involved in recovery, sorting, recycling, and manufacturing new packaging materials can often have considerably more of an environmental impact than simply using the same packaging over many trips.

As such, it is essential to consider whether reusable packaging, such as Correx totes or Euro containers, would be the most sustainable option for your business.

Besides environmental improvements, reusing your packaging can reduce mid- to long-term costs. As it is often made from plastics or more durable materials, returnable tote containers are typically more robust and durable, better protecting their contents. You can typically enhance your reusable packaging with various divers and inserts.

A reusable plastic tote on a pallet in a warehouse
Many businesses are surprised to learn that reusable plastic packaging can often be the most sustainable option


Suppose it is not possible to reduce your packaging use or switch to reusable packaging. In that case, ensuring your packaging is recyclable and ideally recycled is crucial.

For example, using corrugated cardboard fittings instead of plastic-based inserts can make it significantly easier for your customers to recycle your packaging. Incidentally, this is also likely to improve customer satisfaction.

Using recycled and recyclable packaging can also help avoid the plastic packaging tax and potentially reduce any fees you may incur as part of the Extended Producer Responsibilities (EPR) legislation.

If recyclable packaging is the best option for your product or application, then communicating this is vital. Including recycling symbols on packaging, such as those from OPRL, RESY or even the PAP 20 symbol (for cardboard packaging), improves clarity for your end users (and therefore recycling rates) and highlights your eco credentials.

Brown cardboard recyclable packaging with black print
Recyclable packaging is a good option if reusable solutions are not suitable.

The 7Rs

What other ways are there to improve the sustainability of your packaging?

Taking the concept of the 3Rs further, Wal-Mart identified the “7 R’s of Sustainable Packaging” to further minimise their environmental impact.

Many now reference these as the model for corporate sustainability beyond just packaging.

But what are the 7Rs?

Including the original 3Rs, the seven identified strategies are as follows:

  • Reduce.
  • Reuse.
  • Recycle(able).
  • Remove.
  • Renew(able).
  • Revenue.
  • Read.


“Reduce” sees businesses use correctly sized packaging (reducing size) and optimising strength and design to ensure you use minimal material whilst remaining fit for purpose.


All transit and supply chain packaging, including pallets and delivery containers, should be reused wherever possible.


Packaging should use material with the highest possible recycled content. Recycled material should include post-consumer recycled content where appropriate. Packaging should also be easily recyclable by consumers, specifically within kerbside collections.


Unnecessary packaging – such as boxes or layers of packaging – should be eliminated where their absence will not affect protection during transit. You should also remove harmful or difficult-to-recycle materials from your packaging.


Materials used to manufacture your boxes, bags, or other items should be from renewable sources, such as FSC-certified packaging. Wal Mart also suggests renewable resources are measured using ASTM D6866, and biodegradable materials should meet ASTM D6400 or ASTM D6868.


All of the strategies within the 7Rs should be achievable at the same or reduced costs. It is important to note that you must take a long-term view when considering this (e.g. switching to returnable containers will have a short-term impact on costs but will lower them over the mid to long term).


Finally, it is essential to educate yourself on what makes packaging genuinely sustainable and stay abreast of developments, new materials and consumer expectations.

Implementing the 3Rs

How GWP can help your business improve the sustainability of your packaging

GWP takes pride in aiming to be one of the UK’s leading sustainable packaging companies.

As such, we always look to take a holistic approach to minimising the environmental impact of your packaging. What is also often overlooked is that even small, incremental improvements in your packaging can result in immediate and significant benefits to your business.

A packaging designer working on a packaging layout
Working with an experienced packaging designer is crucial if you are looking to implement the 3Rs

By enabling you to reduce both the overall level and amount of materials used in your packaging, it also allows for greater cost savings. This benefit is seen not only in the packaging itself but also in its transportation and disposal.

You can work with a team of designers that have received industry recognition for their sustainable packaging designs. Offering the full spectrum of reusable, recyclable, and even biodegradable packaging options, you can also be sure that any advice you receive is genuinely impartial and unbiased.


Understanding what is sustainable packaging

Whilst it is simple to answer the question of what the 3Rs are, implementing the ideas into your business can prove more difficult.

So, if you would like to improve the sustainability of your packaging, GWP can help. Simply speak with one of our experts today for an initial consultation, and take the first steps on your journey to truly sustainable packaging.

Further reading

About the Author

Matt Dobson, GWP Group Marketing Manager

Matt Dobson

Marketing Manager | GWP Group

Matt has worked in the packaging industry for over 10 years, having joined GWP Group as Marketing Executive in 2012. [Read full bio]

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