Mother of All R’s is “Redesign”

Here’s a dozen R’s and the most important is Redesignreject furnace bricks hold pizza trays ready for pizza oven Permaculture Visions

When researching and writing about waste reduction and the ‘classic 4 R’s’ focused on in the 90’s we realised the importance of a 5th R: Redesign.
Since then our wonderful students have suggested more. Lela Copeland, now one of our graduates in Hawaii, wrote about Re-use by modification (Retrofit). Permaculture North Sydney had more and there were 10 R’s to consider. Now Flavia Reis and Shane Moon (students in our face-to-faced course) and another student Ben Clarke have suggested a few more.

  • Refuse
  • Reduce
  • Redistribute (share) 
  • Re-use
  • Retrofit
  • Repair
  • Recycle
  • Refurbish
  • Redeem
  • Restore
  • Regenerate
  • Rebuild. 
  • Redesign


Redesign for durability, ease of maintenance and repair, and use of materials that are easily re-used and re-cycled without high energy input or toxic by-products. The concept of designing in parts called modules is a design feature that usually increases waste. However, if the modules are small enough, they can make repair easy (replacing just a steel blade or a brush head). Modules in many modern products such as white goods and cars are self-contained, and can usually only be opened when broken. If we design for common parts, sizes and materials with ingenious combinations and application then the design has a much greater capacity for re-use and repair. Few cars or even computers have common parts from one brand to another, this has often been to enhance the uniqueness of the product, ‘It’s different, better, sophisticated and new’. When consumers demand repair-ability, items will be promoted less on uniqueness and more on their common-ness or ‘standards’ and availability of parts.

Permaculture is about re-design. Clever design finds multiple functions and use for the waste, which is simply unused output [Mollison]. We can re-design our cities into self-reliant ‘villages’ and our home systems into responsible multi-functional productive spaces.


By growing, and buying food from one another locally, we are refusing transport, packaging, super-marketing and wasted by production. When out shopping – take a small backpack or basket, or use the cardboard boxes the goods came to the shop in. Say “no thanks” to plastic bags. At the butcher, take your own containers. Support shops that use biodegrable plastic bags. At the bakery ask for paper bags and keep items fresh at home in large canisters. You don’t have to buy new containers either. Many second hand stores are filled to the brim with unloved Tupperware and old biscuit tins. If you want something special as an alternative to plastic browse the antique stores.


Aim to reduce imports into the system. Packaging and transport costs are reduced when you grow your own foods. Clothes, furniture and white goods (if repaired to maintain efficiency) can be worn longer. Buy fewer gadgets, or buy one that serves several functions. What is the most often used gadget in the kitchen? The knife. It serves many functions and is very simple.

Redistribute or Re-allocate and Share

Sharing equipment is easy on the commercial and industrial level because we can hire from one business to another. Farmers and Manufacturing businesses get in contractors or hire equipment. Sharing transport facilities is also easy: public transport or car pooling. Sharing recreational and travel equipment (canoes, boats, camping gear) is a bit harder as you need to build a circle of friends that you can trust to care for the equipment.

We don’t see the justification for a paper copier in our office, it is more ecological but a bit more time-consuming to simply go to where the equipment is shared and pay for copying services. We also choose re-useable storage equipment such as computer discs/drives rather than paper and have needed very little paper for printing.

Re-useresources for waste garden

Choose products that can be re-used. Avoid so-called disposable items that cannot be recycled, much less re-used. For example: Modular equipment and tools enable a lot of re-use. Rechargeable batteries are best but mains electricity can mean even less toxins in soil upon disposal at end-life if there is government awareness and disposal systems. Most plastic items cannot be re-used when they break whereas materials such as metal or wood can be re-modelled and reused. Plastic is still plastic at the very smallest particle level (Nanos) and is even more dangerous when in tiny particles because it attracts heavy metals. Today there are technologies to convert plastic back into oil, but this is still a fossil fuel and not compost-able after reuse.  Cloth nappies cost only a little more than disposables. Why not buy a small towel when you’re out and have forgotten a nappy? Nappies are great rags later too. Cane baskets are easier to carry than plastic bags: they don’t cut into your fingers. Paper bags should be re-used before recycling to store dried seed etc. Alternatives to plastic bags are hard to imagine now but people managed for centuries before plastic. Wrapping wet items in paper then in a towel is one solution. (We wring then wrap wet swimming costumes a towel). Also consider tins, canvas and old containers.

In our no-dig gardens we use a local contactor mowers grass clippings and  paper and cardboard from a local shop. The storage bay is made from old sheet metal, rejected wooden pallets and old fencing.  The gate behind the work area is made from old scrap metal pieces welded together – old bed heads, old plough, horseshoes and tools.


Modification, adjustment or alteration of a product can make it useful for another purpose. An example being an old milk jug cut off the top and used to store eggs or pot plants.


As mentioned above, buy goods designed for repair. Less than 20 years ago you could buy even small items such as pencil sharpeners with replaceable blades. But they cost more than the plastic ones, and are hard to find.  Some large items such as modern cars are not designed to be easily repaired. The industry wants us to replace our cars. Some parts are possibly salvaged and recycled as scrap metal. Many cars today contain non-recycled materials. We should avoid items with high levels of non-recyclable materials. Buy for durability and repair-ability. Next time you have the misfortune to see a traffic hold-up, imagine all those vehicles as landfill! Fortunately, many steel works today require a proportion (about 10%) of their primary ingredients to be scrap metal, so the steel manufacturers seek metal. This keeps the steel recycling cycle revolving.


Most organic items can be recycled in the home system, plastic can be recycled too, but there may be harmful gases let off during the process. Get some worms onto the job if you only have a home unit, use paper waste as mulch or try recycled paper making.

scarecrow uses old clothes and cds for eyes to scare the birdsRe-use before Recycling

Re-use is the cheapest and most efficient use of materials. Re-use means the item stays the same; it may be cleaned (as with bottles) or treated in a special way. An example of re-use without any energy use in modification is the use of old boxes for storage, then to provide beds for poultry. But the shape and function of the item is unchanged (until the poultry have made their mark!).

Recycling involves treatments that change the shape of the item, even if only temporarily. Paper or Aluminium cans are crushed and then re-made. The final function of the re-made item is the same but it is not as energy efficient and immediate as re-using the item. Recycling may involve the manufacture of a different item from the materials e.g. paper is re-cycled to cardboard, or the old bug-infested, manure enriched cardboard boxes from the poultry are soaked (kills bugs) and used for sheet mulching.
Our scarecrow uses old clothes and cds for eyes to scare the birds.


Refurbishment is the process of maintenance or a major repair of an item, either aesthetically or mechanically. If you look after something, it won’t need as much refurbishment. Antiques are a good example of being loved and refurbished all their lives.  They are often a classic design or well crafted and this has helped them stay loved.

Restore and Redeem

In a Restoration, parts may have to be made or replaced so that the item can work again. The parts are usually made the same as the original. Ideal restorable items have replaceable pieces, simple technology and few movable, durable parts. The parts can be machined with simple tools.


Re-build is similar to a restoration but you might choose parts that were better technology or readily available or re-used.


This is where the beauty of living systems is superior. Living elements can regenerate whereas man made items cannot. If you need to choose between a living element such as a shade tree versus a shade house, there is little argument in favour of the construction made from dead wood because the shade tree has potential to regenerate and create more shade trees for other applications or people.

How we avoid waste on our site:

Most of the resources we bring on site are carefully selected. We choose:

  • Recycled items. These include computers, toys, clothes, building materials, furniture.
  • Durable items. Those that are well constructed of strong material (metal or responsibly harvested timber).
  • Repairable items. Including older style tools, machinery and furniture, items that are modular with replaceable parts.
  • Biodegradable materials. Some small cracks in plastic items we have managed to repair with the use of a soldering iron but on whole metal and wood items are much easier because we have several non-toxic ways to mend them (welding, or nuts and bolts). A cane basket will have a second life in the garden whereas a plastic basket becomes landfill.
  • Items that don’t need electricity or batteries such as solar calculator, dynamo torches, carpet sweeper.
  • Biological solutions. A shade tree is just as effective as a cabana. Our geese are automatic day-long, week-long grass cutter and security alarm. Since the introduction of the geese the estimated reduction in lawn mowing has been over 120 hours per year. Now the only reason why we mow is to keep the weeds at bay.
  • Simple solutions. (a dried bunch of leaves can be used to clean out the pets water dishes each day, a straight branch or length of bamboo makes a quick and easy broom handle or curtain rod, bicarbonate of soda or eucalyptus or vinegar are wonderful cleaners).
  • The selection and use of these items means that you have to be prepared to fix things yourself and be prepared to develop the skills to modify and repair them. You also have to accept you may have some ‘bad’ days when the items fail without warning. But the benefits far out-weigh those costs. The benefits are to the environment and our own development. In permaculture we teach that you should have several ways to meet a need and several needs met by each element. For instance, a high tech element such as the computer should meet several needs, family and work, research (medical or nature). And other elements should also meet that need such as friends, community information and library use, newspapers, books, magazines etc.

Another expensive and important item is the car: for 18 years we had only one car. It met the needs of our family of 4 by managing the rides well.  We share our bicycle with neighbours and people who work here, catch the bus on the days we don’t have the car, and walk during the safe hours when the traffic is slow.  Unfortunately many of my neighbours drive up to the school or corner store, which is less than 100m from their home!

The types of re-useable waste from our home site are:

  • Food
  • Seed from fruits and vegetables we grow or buy.
  • Water (greywater and rainwater)
  • Ash (from our heating source)
  • Containers from food, cosmetic and medicinal supplies.
  • Clothing (worn, ill-fitting or undersize)
  • Paperbush seat