Why Reduce & Reuse?
Humans produce a lot of solid waste—1.3 billion tons per year, to be exact. The U.S., which is only 5% of the world’s population, generates 258 million tons of municipal solid waste every year (between 17 and 20% of the world’s waste). In 2016-17 Australians generated about 67 million tonnes of waste a year, and that figure is increasing. That means that waste, like wealth, is unevenly distributed – the richest tend to make the most waste.
However, unlike wealth, which is kept hidden and secure and away from the population as a whole – WASTE is there for everyone to share. Or, those who are wealthy pass off waste for those who are poor to deal with. It’s like the industrial economy works like this.
raw, natural environment > mining to get scarce metals and minerals > used to create wealthy consumer items > waste is sent back to poor communities to deal with
Waste from our wealthy lives impacts across all areas of our lives. Simple things like going to a sporting event are actually enormous waste events – thousands of plastic cups, plastic bags full of chips, plastic straws and plastic cup lids and other assorted one off items produced for a one off event. It’s as if we will still be suffering the hangover effect from that one day event for the next 300 years with all that plastic.
Recycling ain’t the answer
So we have been advised to recycle. And for many years, recycling was THE ANSWER – it left me with a warm fuzzy feeling and I felt as though I was doing something – however insignificant in the face of the bigger problem.
But in the meantime, in business and “real life” I saw the exact opposite – so much plastic waste being sent to landfill because it was cheaper than trying to do something else with it. Or asking for a plastic free alternative and being met with a sigh and shrugged shoulders as though it was an unnecessary overkill. It seemed as though the thoughts were there, but in business, it was pushed to one side.
Then, when it came to elections, it seemed actually no one really cared. People voted solely for economic benefits. Like a tax break or getting heavy on dole bludgers or crime or whatever little slogan appealed to people’s fears. Again, there was almost zero political will do do anything or make a change. It seemed like the environment and climate change and waste reduction was yesterdays’ news – or too hard.
The invention of Fake News
Even worse, more recently the rise of bigoted right wing media has stirred outrage among uneducated types who loudly profess how they “don’t believe” in climate change or that something they call “climate change science” isn’t sufficiently clear enough to warrant action. It’s become a sad reality where uninformed bores use “I’m entitled to an opinion” as a means to repeat stuff they read in the Daily Telegraph as if it were fact. I have even found myself in a discussion with one of these types, trying to explain something clearly beyond their ken.
But, these people vote and their votes are keeping any significant change at bay. So long as the big corporates are able to keep their hugely profitable, but also hugely polluting, systems in place, they can afford to create media spin and uncertainty around “climate science” as if there is something called a “climate debate”.
Climate Change is Real, folks
There is no debate – except when it comes to sycophantic politicians distracting an overfed and essentially materially “spoiled brat” electorate obsessed with jet skis and thick bench tops and plump lips. At core, the invitation for us is to say no.
Just like we are encouraged to say no to the overabundance of food available so we don’t become overweight and ill. In the same spirit is it even possible for us to show restraint and say no to wealth based over indulgence? Can we – would you – choose to sit and meditate when we can well afford to fly to Paris for lunch?
It’s amazing how quickly the waste debate elevates into a philosophical debate around values and purpose. Are we here to collect and consume – or to experience and create?
So long as you had your McMansion in an outer suburb of Sydney and drove a SUV and got a holiday once a year and stuff like that – people were quite happy to sit idle and let the environmental degradation carry on. Feel bad about it – maybe even post on Facebook or watch a movie or something – but not to take real action or do anything meaningful about it.
What to do?
Let’s get back to the basics.
Solid waste impacts the environment, human health, and the economy. It is an all-encompassing matter that plays a major role in society; but in modern times is largely ignored by the public because its affects are so displaced from us. Throwing something away, to us, means never having to see or think about it again. But, as activist Annie Leonard once said, “There is no such thing as ‘away.’ When we throw anything away it must go somewhere.”
Where is “away”?
Most municipal solid waste in the Australia is landfilled – i.e. sent to a disposal site where it is buried. Modern landfills are little more than big pits full of garbage; We are sold the idea that they are carefully engineered facilities designed with various safety controls to prevent pollutants from entering the ecosystem. – But, at the end of the day there is tonnes and tonnes of junk and rubbish going in that hole for year on year and look – would you want to live on top of it or eat vegies grown on the soil?
One of the major pollutants that comes from landfills is leachate, a highly toxic liquid that forms when raination mixes with waste. Leachate is highly concentrated with numerous chemicals from the breaking down materials, and, cannot be properly managed, so it seeps into surrounding land and groundwater, posing an dire environmental and health hazard. While landfills are “lined” to prevent leachate from entering the ecosystem, liners crack and degrade over time; and all landfills will leak eventually.
This means the land around the landfill – and the water table – is polluted with a kind of toxic soup filled with god knows what.
Landfills are toxic
Another issue with landfills is methane – a greenhouse gas 28-36 times more potent than carbon dioxide – which forms when organic materials (such as food waste, green waste, paper products, wood and lumber, etc.) break down without access to oxygen. Landfills are the third largest emitter of human-related methane in Australia, and even though some landfills have gas capturing systems, no landfill is able to capture 100% of the methane it produces. This means that landfill sites are heavy contributors to climate change.
Although landfills are the waste management strategy of choice in Australia, unmanaged dump sites are still prevalent worldwide, particularly in impoverished areas. Garbage dumps differ from landfills in that they do not utilise any of the “safety measures” employed by landfills. Dumps are not lined or capped, and do not prevent methane or leachate from entering the environment.
More and more we are seeing private dumps – where a waste company buys up land in a regional area and just trucks their waste to the site.
This causes major pollution issues, and can result in carcinogen and other toxic chemical exposure in humans residing nearby. Surprisingly, the world’s largest garbage dump is not on land – it is in the ocean, which poses major health and environmental impacts of its own. Remember that cruise holiday you went on? How much of the rubbish created onboard is carefully sorted and recycled in a waste facility – or is it all dumped overboard each night? Who knows? Who checks this?
Litter, most wastes, and trash dumped illegally are carried via wind or waterways to the ocean. It is estimated that 80% of ocean debris comes from trash disposed of on land (as opposed to boaters, oil rigs, and cargo ships “accidentally” or routinely dumping into the ocean). Some studies indicate that millions of tons of plastic waste enter the ocean every year.
The ocean is the perfect waste dump in that you can throw all your crap in there and it sort of washes away a buit and looks as though nothing has happened. So you keep throwing stuff in there, more and more, and eventually, something has to break.
However, the exact amount of refuse in the ocean is unmeasurable due to photodegradation of plastics, and the fact that the majority of marine debris (an estimated 70%) sinks to the bottom of the ocean and is thus not readily observable. Plastics and other garbage in the ocean have devastating effects on marine ecosystems, biodiversity, human health, the fishing industry, and more.
Between 11 and 12% of municipal solid waste in the United States is incinerated. Incinerators are one of the most expensive management strategies for municipal solid waste. Incinerators also cause asthma, breathing difficulties and airway disease by destroying air quality, pollution, and toxic ash.
Until recently, much of our carefully sorted recycling from our very own yellow bins in Australia was sent to Indonesia to be simply incinerated. We believed it was being”recycled” but we didn’t know it was being recycled into ash and toxic fumes. All along I thought I was making a difference but in reality it was a cynical exercise in keeping me less aware and content to be a part of the easy solution.
Recycling is not the be all and end all for waste. Certainly there is scope for 30% – 60% of waste to be recovered through recycling – but too often the recycling output is poor quality or simply not ready for market. People don’t want recycled plastic bottles all cut up into chips – or the processing is so slow and filthy that it costs so much it’s cheaper to just keep using new product.
Excessive Production and Consumption
The real answer is less production at the source. What does this mean? It means being able to choose whether we want our avocado wrapped in plastic on a foam tray with a sticker. It means buying rolled oats by the scoop, or filled our cotton flourbag instead of being forced to buy a plastic bag.
It means choosing to NOT do things – like going for a Sunday drive in the car for 2 hours for no good reason. Or even having a V8 just because you can afford it – or to appear successful. Or taking a plane holiday for no good reason – like living next to the beach in Australia and then going to Hawaii for a holiday – what’s with that? “The culture” – they might say, eating McDonalds in Maui.
The problem is not for us to solve at the domestic level – Production and excessive consumption pose far greater environmental, social, and health risks than the residential waste, itself. “For every ton of municipal discards wasted, about 71 tons of manufacturing, mining, oil and gas exploration, agricultural, coal combustion, and other discards are produced.” Thus, the vast majority of waste produced throughout an item’s lifecycle is generated before the object even reaches the consumer’s hands.
Tossing the item in the recycling bin, as opposed to the garbage, does allow the product to be made into something new; thus reducing the emissions and waste that would have been generated if that new product had been made out of virgin materials. However, using and recycling single-use items day after day does not do anything to address the energy, emissions, and waste associated with the production of these single-use items in the first place. Additionally, the recycling process also requires energy, and can generate pollution and waste byproducts of its own.
Not all recycling is truly closed-loop, either; Annie Leonard, in The Story of Stuff, wrote,
“[Recycling] often isn’t even recycling but is actually something called downcycling. True recycling achieves a circular closed loop production process (a bottle into a bottle into a bottle), while downcycling just makes Stuff into a lower-grade material and a secondary product (a plastic jug into carpet backing). At best, downcycling reduces the need for virgin ingredients for the secondary item, but it never reduces the resources needed to make a replacement for the original item.”
There is still merit to reducing extraction of virgin materials, and some recycling really is closed-loop (such as aluminum), so recycling is inarguably better than landfilling. However, recycling (as it occurs today) is far from perfect; there are far more environmentally and socially responsible ways to reduce waste.
If recycling’s not the answer, what is?
Of the Three R’s (reduce, reuse, recycle), there is a reason “reduce” and “reuse” come before recycle. Reducing overall consumption and opting for durable, reusable items rather than single-use disposables will have significantly better environmental impacts than simply doing our best to recycle.
A good way to start is to take notice of the waste you are producing. Once you become aware of the types of trash you are generating, it is easier to identify effective ways to reduce and find durable alternatives. For nearly every disposable item on the market, there are sustainable and/or reusable alternatives (i.e. reusable straws, metal razors, reusable food wrap, cloth produce bags, etc.).