Sustainability in the van - The 6 Rs: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Repair, Recycle & Rot

Sustainability at Vanlife - The 6 Rs: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Repair, Recycle & Rotate

People were created to be loved. Things were created to be used. The world is in chaos because things are loved and people are used.

Dalai Lama

The world is full of challenges. And one of the greatest challenges of our time is undoubtedly environmental protection.

From time to time, I get hints that climate protection and the climate crisis are also narratives that we - that is, I - have bought into. That may be. It can't be. I'm not a scientist and I'm not going to be one. But: protecting the environment, doing without the unnecessary, using the earth only within planetary boundaries, protecting animal and plant life and serving the common good seem to make sense to me, despite all the back-and-forth discussion. Doesn't it?

In this blog post I want to talk about a method we can all use to do our bit to solve this problem - the 6-R rule. (Actually, it's a 5-R rule, but I've expanded it to include repairing!)

Disclaimer: This article is about Things we consume. Not experiences and encounters. We do not want to reject, reduce or compost these.

What is the 6-R rule?

The 6-R rule comprises six principles that help us to live more sustainably. They originate from English and read: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Repair and Rot (compost). While recycling is already firmly anchored in society, the other principles are often neglected. It is therefore time to pay more attention to them.


Refusing is the first step towards sustainability. It's about not buying things we don't need or that are harmful to the environment. Just think of the many free samples we get or over-packaged products. When we refuse such things, we reduce waste and conserve resources.

There's a great article about why sustainable consumption on a grand scale doesn't work. Click here to go to Geo magazine:

Sustainable consumption is indeed a difficult thing. Our society loves to buy things. More and more and faster and faster. For that, we always need new things to buy. But that is not good for the earth. It would be better to buy less and use things longer. We should repair them when they are broken and exchange them when we no longer need them.

Ask yourself before each purchase:

  • Do I really have to have that?
  • Am I only doing this because others want me to or because it is so "normal"?
  • Is there no other way?
  • Can I borrow it somewhere?
  • How long or how often do I use it?
  • In our case, an important question because of the lack of space: Does the new thing to be bought perhaps even have more than one function? The water bag can also be used as a hot water bottle, the old glass as a flower vase or for storage, cloths as a tablecloth etc.).

And more and more often the question: Does it make me happy? And pretty quickly the answer: "Really? You let things make you happy?" I'm a bit embarrassed, to be honest.

Except for wool, which makes me really happy. The purchase, the creativity, the feeling, the knitting, the result, the handwork. Yes, wool makes me happy.

upcycling and repurposing clothes into unique and creative accessories, such as braid bracelets or head wraps
Photo: Adobe / Alfazet Chronicles


Reducing means buying fewer things. Sometimes we buy more than we need. An extra T-shirt here, a new toy there. But every new product needs materials and makes waste. That's why we should pay more attention to what we buy and only buy what we really need.

Can we do something good by buying things? Sometimes we buy to belong. This often happens when we buy new things, which is called "newism". Some people believe that buying things is good. They say it's not only good for us because we have new things. It's also good for other people and the economy.

But this idea is not fixed. How we think about buying can change. It's good to buy less and repair more. And it's good to buy only what we really need.

Ask yourself:

  • What things do I own that I don't really need?
  • How could I get by with less and still be happy and content?
  • What positive effects could my reduced consumption have on the environment and society?
  • Which of my daily habits lead me to consume more than necessary?
  • Do I need so many hobby accessories?
  • Do I have to move in/out of such a big flat again or would one room less be feasible?

Here is a good interview about it:

And another book tip: "Consumption - Why we buy what we don't need" with two great quotes from it:

"The question of need has become secondary. The mere wanting has become the engine of our economy. A benefit is no longer the prerequisite for the success of a product. On the contrary: a useful product makes us satisfied at best. But only that which goes beyond utility, luxury, makes us happy. A hoover bag doesn't make us happy, a scented candle does."

"It is in our nature that the scarcer things are, the more desirable they seem to us. Evolution has taught us to secure everything that is in limited supply because you never know when it will be available next. That's why things suddenly seem more valuable when we realise they are rare."

As a book here:

As an audio book here:

chalk paint vase
Photo: adobe / Wendy


Reuse is an important strategy to reduce our ecological footprint and protect our planet. It involves using items several times instead of throwing them away after a single use. By reusing, we can significantly reduce the amount of waste we produce and at the same time save valuable resources that are normally used to make new products.

Reuse can be applied in many areas of our lives. With clothes, for example, this can mean buying used clothes or giving away our own clothes instead of throwing them away. In the kitchen, we could use empty jars and containers to store food instead of throwing them away. Furniture can also often be repurposed and reused instead of being replaced.

It is important to realise that reuse is not only good for the environment, but also good for our wallet. When we reuse things, we extend their life and get more for the money we originally spent on them. So before you throw something away next time, ask yourself: Can I reuse this?

Ideas, expandable at will!

  1. Glass containersYou can use jam jars or pickle jars to store food or as flower vases.
  2. Old clothesYou can turn old T-shirts into cleaning rags or shopping bags, or sew cushion covers from old jumpers.
  3. Paper and cardboardYou can use them for craft projects, or cut paper into smaller pieces and use them as notes.
  4. Disposable plastic containersYou can use them to store leftovers or to plant herbs and small plants.
  5. Old furnitureWith a little paint and creativity, you can upgrade and reuse old furniture.
  6. Egg boxesYou can use them as seed trays for plants or to store small objects.
  7. Old bed linenYou can turn old sheets or duvet covers into tea towels, curtains or tablecloths.
  8. Toilet paper rollsYou can use them as seed starters or to store cables and cords.
  9. Wine bottlesYou can use them as candle holders or flower vases.
  10. Old toothbrushes: They are ideal for cleaning hard-to-reach places such as joints or keyboards.

Remember that there are countless ways to reuse things in the household. Often all it takes is a little creativity and the will to do something for the environment.

upcycling indoor gardening
Photo: adobe / marugod83

Questions you can ask yourself:

  • Can I find the product I need in a second-hand shop?
  • Is there a possibility to borrow or rent the product instead of buying it?
  • Can I pass on the product I no longer need to someone who does?
  • Is there a way to reuse the product I am about to throw away?
  • Is there a swap or giveaway market near me that I can participate in?
  • Are there online platforms or apps where I can trade or sell unused items?
  • Can I compost my food waste to make nutrient-rich soil for my garden?
  • Could I leave my old books in a public library or in a book exchange shelf?
  • Are there repair cafés near me where I can learn how to repair broken things instead of throwing them away?
  • How could I reuse old towels or bed linen? Could they serve as cleaning rags or even bedding for animals?
  • Can I sew new clothes or accessories from the fabric of old garments?
biodegradable pots with seedlings
Photo: adobe / t.sableaux


"Repair" is the fourth step in the 6-R rule. This means that you repair broken or damaged things instead of throwing them away and buying new ones. Sometimes we quickly buy something new when something doesn't work quite right or breaks. But often we could fix these things ourselves if we put a little effort into it.

Repairing has many advantages. It extends the life of things, reduces waste and saves resources. It is also often cheaper to repair something than to buy it new. And it can be a very satisfying activity. It develops your practical skills and you learn how things work. If you are unsure how to repair something, there are many resources on the internet or in your town, such as repair cafés, that can help you.

On 22 March 2023, the European Commission presented a proposal for a "Right to Repair presented. This should make it easier for us as consumers to have defective things such as household appliances or electronics repaired.

Some countries are already a step further when it comes to repairs. Sweden, for example, has halved the VAT on minor repairs. France has introduced a "repair index" and Austria a "repair bonus", which has also been tested in Thuringia.

In France, shops have to inform customers how easy or difficult it is to repair an electronic product. For this, there is a rating between one and ten. This rating is printed on the product's packaging. This way you can quickly see if you can repair a product easily or not.

In Austria, repairing is supported by the state: If you want to have an electrical appliance repaired, you can apply and get half of the repair costs reimbursed, up to a maximum of 100 euros.

In repair cafés, people who like to repair things meet with people who have broken something. They work together and learn how to make things work again. Volunteers organise these meetings, which take place in community centres, cultural centres or other places. Attendance is free, but you are welcome to give a donation. You usually have to buy and pay for spare parts yourself, but you can get tips along the way. You can find repair cafés on

Before we replace something, we always ask ourselves if it can still be repaired. And most of the time it can. And if repair is then no longer possible, as for example with my jeans that have been mended several times in the meantime, the trouser legs will certainly be used as small bags, craft projects or in the Our son's sewing projects live on.

Small listening tip:

a woman mends jeans, sews a patch on a hole, hands close up.mending clothes concept,reusing old jeans.
Photo: Adobe / Tatyana


Sometimes it is inevitable that products are no longer needed. In such cases, recycling comes into play. Recycling allows materials to be recovered and used to make new products. But beware: recycling is not the first, but rather the last option of the 6-R rule, as it consumes energy and is often not 100% efficient.

I have already written a lot about recycling, here for example:
Recycling is actually downcycling

Before you buy anything, these questions about recycling could help you make conscious choices:

  • Is the product I want to buy recyclable?
  • Are the materials that make up the product already recycled?
  • Is there a more environmentally friendly alternative to this product?
  • Can I return the product to the manufacturer at the end of its life or take it to a shop where it will be recycled?
  • Is there a deposit system for this product?
  • Would I go to the trouble of disposing of and recycling this product correctly?
  • Is the product designed in such a way that it can be easily disassembled into its components and recycled?

Red (composting)

Composting is the last stage of the 6-R rule. It refers to organic waste such as fruit and vegetable peelings. By composting, we can make nutrient-rich soil from these wastes. Even if you don't have your own garden, there are ways to compost waste at home, for example with a worm bin.

I find this issue in particular the hardest when you live in a van.

vegetable peel, waste from cooking, into a compost bucket.
Photo: Adobe / наталья саксонова

If you are thinking about composting in your motorhome or caravan, the following questions might be helpful:

  • Do I have enough space in my van (or even in the flat) to set up a composter?
  • What type of compost bin is best for the limited space in my motorhome?
  • Which waste can I compost and which not?
  • How can I minimise unpleasant odours?
  • How can I dispose of the finished compost on the way?
  • How much time and effort am I willing to invest in composting?
  • How can I reconcile composting with my travel plans?
  • How do I deal with insects or other critters that might be attracted to the compost?
  • What are the local regulations for composting when travelling?

We personally don't compost, but we do separate the waste. Sometimes we find the opportunity to become something in compost heaps on the way. Otherwise, the valuable organic waste unfortunately goes into the normal bin. The advantage of separating is that we hardly have any liquid, wet or muddy things in the normal rubbish. Thus, we save the rubbish bags and can just empty our rubbish bin like that.

A frugal life - our result of the 6-R rule

Living with the bare necessities

The 6-R rule shows us the way to a life in which we get by with the bare essentials. This does not mean that we do without everything. It means that we learn to be content with what we have. Living with the bare necessities relieves us of superfluous things and leads us to be careful with what we have.

Here is another book suggestion: Real Wealth: Why Investing in Inner Wealth Pays Off - A Plea for New Values

Summary of the book:

In our society, we usually see happiness only in material things. Buying may make us happy in the short term, but it doesn't make us truly happy - true happiness manifests itself on many levels.
Vivian Dittmar explains what constitutes a life that makes you happy in a whole new way: happy through enough time, good relationships, creativity, the feeling of being part of life and the wonderful nature. She makes it clear that a beautiful life is not in opposition to a necessary environmental and social change, but is made possible by it. A call for a truly happy society and for what really counts.

Living with the bare necessities means that you are happy with what you have and don't always want more. You can also be happy with little. The Dalai Lama says that often, even when we get what we want, we are not satisfied. This constant wanting never ends and always brings problems. The only thing that helps is to live with what you need.

Other words for living with the bare essentials are gratitude and simplicity. These are important parts of such a life:
You should be grateful for what you have. Instead of always wanting more, you should realise how good what you already have is. Simplicity means living with only a few things that make you happy. If you hold these two ideas inside you, you will better understand what you have. You will also appreciate more what you have.

We live in a world where we always buy new things, even if we don't need them. But many people are not happy for long with what they have bought new. When we look at others who have it better or at rich people on TV, we want to have that too or even more. But that doesn't usually make us happy. It rather brings stress and makes us unhappy.

Here is another 3-minute video tip:

Podcast No. 154 - Isle of Skye, Harris & Lewis, Inner and Outer Hebrides - Scotland - Grand Tour

Small changes

The 6-R rule is not a magic trick and you cannot implement it completely right away. It's more about making small changes that are good for the environment. Every small step is important. Before you buy something, think about which of the 6 Rs you could implement right now.

You don't have to be perfect. It's about making a difference. So why not start today?

Remember that every little change makes a difference. If we all work together, we can do a lot for the environment.

Sources, all retrieved 4.8.2023

Thank you for reading our sustainability thoughts. Every two to three weeks on Mondays we write something about the possibility of living future-oriented in the van. We try to shed light on different areas and hope to do so without pointing fingers.

Our focus is on the joy of van life and the many possibilities. We want to avoid the usual doomsday and renunciation communication.

You can find all the sustainability posts collected in the Category Future.

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Best regards - Heike & Gerd


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