Being confronted by disturbing statistics or pictures can be uncomfortable, but it can also help engage us in an issue. To begin or re-inspire the journey towards waste reduction or zero waste living, it can be helpful to think about why we want to engage with this movement. Why is it important to me to reduce/eliminate waste from my lifestyles? What makes me care?
Another way that helps us understand the problem is by look at different items of rubbish and working out how long it takes for them to disappear. Charts like this one can help us understand that actually a lot of our waste will persist in the environment for a long time. (It is important to note is that even though plastic items can degrade, i.e. break down into smaller and smaller parts, they still persist in the environment. In fact, every piece of plastic that has every been created still exists.)
Both plastic and glass persist indefinitely in the environment. However, while glass is inert and so does not react with the environment, plastic becomes quite chemically active. This leads to the release of harmful chemicals into the ecosystem, including endocrine disruptors.
For a more complete story of plastic, how it degrades into smaller and smaller pieces, enters the environment, becomes chemically active, and then disrupts ecosystems and human health, the documentaries Plastic Ocean or Midway are very informative and engaging. But a good (albeit simplified) way to think about waste and how it breaks down is:
- Made by nature = breaks down relatively quickly (food, paper, wood, cotton)
- Made by humans = takes a long time to break down (metal, plastic, mixed materials).
Currently, the average person produces around 1.2-1.4kg of waste per day (plus an extra 21kg, as for every 1kg of rubbish we generate approximately another 15kg were created along the supply chain). Most of this ends up in landfill, which is problematic for a number of reasons:
- They release large volumes of methane, a greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change (it has a global warming potential 34 times s greater than carbon dioxide.
- They generate toxic leachate, which can contaminate water; making it unsafe for humans and causing ecosystem disruption.
- They attract vermin, create noise and unpleasant odours, and reduce land quality.
In short, sending waste to landfill causes damage to air, water and land.
There are ways we can begin to reduce the amount of waste we generate:
Conscious shopping – when we are going to purchase something, we can consider the following:
- Do I need this? Less consumption = less waste
- What is it made of?
- What resources and inputs were needed to make the item?
- What wastes were generated along the supply chain?
- What can I do with it when I have finished with it?
- Does it have packaging? (And what is that made of/where will it go?)
- Are the alternatives available? (E.g. perhaps made from sustainable raw materials, perhaps with different/less packaging, etc.)
- What am I going to do with this at the end of its life? When I no longer need it/ it is finished/ it is broken.
- Recycling where possible, by:
- Educating ourselves on what recycling options are available. Which materials are recycled through local curbside collections. Where drop-off points for other items and materials are.
- Ensuring we recycle well by avoiding cross-contamination and ensuring recycling is clean.
- Composting organic material – It is very important that organics are kept out of landfill as they are the ‘key ingredient’ in the generation of methane there. There are several different ways to manage household and business organic waste, including composting, worm farming and Bokashi (or combinations thereof).
- Reducing the number and size of (landfill) bins in the house – The fewer bins there are, the smaller they are, and the more inconveniently located they are, the less likely we are to use them. A really useful way to reduce waste to landfill is to make it relatively difficult to put rubbish in the landfill bin, and easier to dispose of it the correct way.
- Avoiding plastic and especially single use plastic by finding alternatives to everyday items, such as:
use mushroom bag (paper) for pick’n’mix in the supermarket, instead of plastic ones.
Essentially, working towards zero waste living is about following the waste hierarchy as much as possible:
The most important action is avoid sources of waste; refusing items we do not want or need, and reducing the amount we purchase/obtain.
Then we can reuse, re-purpose and mend items, to avoid or delay their disposal.
Recycling is often considered the solution to waste, but reducing and reusing waste are actually much more important, as they help prevent the problem, rather than deal with it. Some materials (glass, aluminium, etc.) can be recycled and the materials retain their value. Others can only be downcycled to a material with lower value and usefulness (e.g. plastics).
With careful use and proper disposal of resources, household waste-to-landfill is often minimal. Sending materials to landfill is almost always preventable and should be avoided whenever possible.