The original 3 Rs emerged from the first Earth Day in 1970 like Venus rising from the ocean.

I don’t know of anyone who can pinpoint the origin. The closest identifiable source is the recycling chapter in the Environmental Handbook published by Ballentine / Friends of the Earth and edited by Garrett De Bell. It was published for Earth Day, the first Environmental Teach-In, that began the Environmental Decade.

Since then many people have suggested adding Rs to the hierarchy, and good Rs, too, such as “Rethink” or “Rot” or “Refuse” (emphasis on the second syllable). But I’m fond of the original three. They are simple and have the ring of fundamental structure, like Readin, ‘Ritin’ and ‘Rithmatic. Three is a near-magical number that turns up in the structure of religion, mathematics, musical chords, and other important places. The three-legged milking stool doesn’t rock unevenly the way a four-legged stool can.

There’s no real need for more Rs. All the original 3 can be subdivided and incorporate the newer suggestions. Compost (“Rot”) is a form of Recycling, applied to yard debris. Refuse (accent on the second syllable) is a subset of Reduce, as is Extended Producer Responsibility. Stuff like Repair can be associated with Recycle.

The lasting idea behind the three Rs is mainly to get people to get up and do something for the environment. It’s about building good habits like using less plastic and recycling aluminum to doing regular maintenance like calling in Tree Services on ailing trees in your neighborhood or participating in donation campaigns for reusable items. It is not so much about what you do, but that you are motivated to do something.

The 3Rs are all phrased as imperatives, commands, so just saying them makes a clear imprint on our brains to do it. They universally known and taught. To change them up for superficial reasons would not only disrupt the existing status quo, but only end up creating more confusion.

The responsibility on the layperson for engaging in environment conscious behavior is ingrained into them when they learn about the 3Rs in school, and the words then act as a trigger for them to start doing. This clarity is lost if we fog up the intention with a fluctuating number of Rs.

Making them imperatives is far superior to more passive frameworks, such as California’s vague and confusing not-a-mantra “Source Reduction, Recycling and Composting, and Transformation.”

Me for the 3 Rs!