We need to talk about waste

29 Jul 2019

Image: © eyetronic/Stock.adobe.com

As Earth Overshoot Day hits its earliest ever date, Elaine Burke wants us to get real about how we waste resources.

It’s 29 July. There’s so much of the year yet to come. We haven’t even made it through the summer holidays yet. And yet, we’ve already overshot our earthly resources for the year.

Earth Overshoot Day comes earlier every year. It has jumped two months sooner in the past 20 years. We simply can’t keep going like this.

In the developed world, we are overdoing it in almost every respect. We are wasteful in terms of food, water, energy and more because we can be. Our infrastructure gives the impression of limitless resources and waste management and we’ve wilfully believed the lie.

For example, we throw things in a bin and someone takes that bin away. Job done, waste managed. Except there is no ‘away’ in throw away. There is only elsewhere. And if elsewhere is not a place of reuse, either directly or through recycling, it is a bulging landfill; a pockmark on a dying planet.

We have somewhat come round to the idea of considering where our stuff comes from, but we need think about where it’s going, too. What’s the lifespan of that new purchase? What’s its end-of-life cycle? Where does it go when you’re done with it? And how long will it hang around?

If we could see what happens to waste, we would think and operate more differently. We can’t just chuck whatever we like in green and brown bins – or into charity shops, which are becoming volunteer waste managers with the volume of trash ‘donated’ to their stores – and then walk away as if it has disappeared. It has to go somewhere. It has to be managed. And until every citizen, as with jury duty, gets conscripted for a day managing waste, I’m not sure how to shift that perspective.

Stop skipping step one

Practically every conversation with friends lately tends to roll around to what actions we can be taking to do our duty to mitigate the climate crisis as a global citizen, as directed by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

We talk about recycling a lot in these conversations, but the horrible truth is the majority of recycling is not being done. At source, because items are not being recycled. In the process because of contaminated bins full of unrecyclable mess. And right to the very end because the plants can’t handle recycling the volume of stuff we are sending there.

The three Rs to live by are Reduce, Reuse, Recycle – and the order matters. Recycling is plan C, the one you turn to when the first two fail. Step one is reduce.

We are leaving a material world

Breaking spending habits formed over years of adulthood with a disposable income is no easy feat. However, a ‘new normal’ is being established that’s less invested in physical, material things.

The Irish Independent’s Adrian Weckler recently noted the amount he’s spending on digital services, and the thought warmed me deeper than this boiling planet can. Because – let’s not kid ourselves – the motivation to keep us spending is what keeps overproduction going, and even a climate emergency won’t stop capitalism at work. But intangible services are where the money not being spent on goods can and will go.

Media has significantly shifted towards the non-physical. Fewer magazines, newspapers, books, DVDs and CDs and more digital subscriptions is a much less wasteful model. There’s no reason why this consumer shift can’t happen elsewhere. And, with a generation less concerned with ownership of individual items coming up, there is hope.

Having spent years living by the rules of reuse and recycle, I am having my own reckoning with reduce. I’ve cut back on buying new things dramatically since the year began and find I am now spending more on services and experiences. Getting my nails done in a salon cheers me up like a new gúna used to, and it feels nice to hand money to someone for skills and resources they provided and not to a corporation for skills and resources they exploited.

I’m reducing. I’m reusing. And, when I’ve run out of options, I recycle and hope for the best.

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Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.