Waste, packaging and pollution: Whose problem is it?

When it comes to responsibility for waste, packaging and pollution, we need to shift the burden away from consumers and regular citizens. When we often can’t even get the average person to recycle or compost, it’s clear that we need to enact change at the governmental level.

When the only way for someone to get some plastic-free greens and vegetables is to wake up early on a Saturday, and take the bus to their local farmers market, with their own reusables containers in tow, it’s clear that we have a problem.

We need to make circular, sustainable systems the norm, not something that requires an exorbitant amount of effort from the regular person who has more pressing things to worry about.

Therefore, we need change to come from above. From the companies, and the governments regulating their actions. Some may say that this will make us uncompetitive, to enact broad regulations prohibiting packaging or forcing companies to retain control over their products. It might make goods more expensive, again placing a burden on the poorest and most vulnerable members of society.

However, I think it’s also important to consider the flip side of this argument. Rather than thinking of what we might lose from these policies, we ought to think of what we have to gain. To be a leader in sustainability and environmental issues. To keep more plastic and trash out of our natural environment. To improve our health by not drinking or consuming all of the microplastics that are currently being released into our waterways and ingested by beings lower on the food chain.

There’s a lot to lose. But I think there’s even more to gain. We need to step up and convince corporations and our governments that these are issues that we care about and start implementing changes sooner rather than later. Because though individual actions may help, they can’t solve these issues on their own. Whose problem is it? It’s all of ours.

Can the subscription and sharing economies decrease consumerism?

“Click here to subscribe and own less stuff!”

Not a tagline you usually see. But is it true that the increasingly popular subscription and sharing economy business models could help reduce consumption and excess consumerism?

As more products are treated as services, many people are finding they don’t need to own as many things, but can instead pay for the right to use what they need. We see this across a number of domains, including music streaming, car and bicycle sharing, tools, or even designer handbags. What people are willing to pay for is not a product in and of itself, but for a solution to their problem.

The common denominator is that many people are choosing to own fewer things, and electing to pay for use on an as-needed basis.

Whether a shift to this business model alone will be enough to curb consumerism remains to be seen, but I see the change as a positive one regardless. In general, there seems to be a trend towards buying solution and experiences, not things. When people no longer feel the need to accumulate shelves full of music albums, a garage full of seldom-used tools or a closet full of designer clothes and handbags, we may find ourselves producing and consuming less stuff.

There are some cases where that mentality will certainly be harder to change. For some people, buying their first car is a right of passage, and likewise owning an expensive car may be a status symbol that some are unwilling to give up.

There are also some couple counter-arguments against the ability of the sharing economy to slow consumption. Some argue that those using these services may be a different segment than those who might opt to buy these objects in the first place. For example, the rental of designer handbags opens up the market to those who would not have purchased one in the first place, and some people who take Ubers might have walked, had the option not been available. These scenarios demonstrate how the sharing economy has the potential to increases the size of the market as a whole, thus increasing consumption.

Nonetheless, I see reason to be optimistic about the new opportunities created by the sharing and subscription economies. The shift away from direct product/object ownership can be seen as positive, supporting the more efficient use of resources, and hopefully providing additional benefits in terms of impact on the environment and the planet.

Why recycling is not enough

Growing up I was always taught to believe that recycling was the right thing to do, that it was a solution to the problem of generating waste.

When we recycle something, we tend to feel good about ourselves. We’re doing the right thing, we’re saving the planet, right?

Unfortunately the truth is that it’s not as simple as that. Due to contamination, the size of the pieces or lack of suitability, only about 20% all waste put in recycling bins actually ends up being recycled.

As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, and as many of you may be aware, China has recently stopped accepting the rest of the world’s plastic recycling, leading to huge issues with recycling piling up in other areas where we have nothing cost-effective to do with it.

Because of this, and a host of other reasons (including the massive amount of single use plastic currently being produced and ending up in our oceans, lakes and rivers, and then in 95% of our tap and drinking water, and the fact that even when recycled, there is only a limited number of times something can be recycled), we can’t just feel like by recycling we are doing our part. Before recycling should come 1) Eliminating – turning down single use plastic items like straws or utensils, 2) Reducing the use of plastic items 3) Reusing – reusing plastic bags or other plastic items multiple times and finally, when all other options are exhausted, then 4) Recycling.

In the end, recycling is not the golden solution that many of us were taught when we were kids. Not all materials have significant value in their recycled form, many are made of multiple material types (making them hard or impossible to recycle), some can only be recycled a limited number of times (recycled plastic gets downgraded each time, until it is no longer usable) and it takes significant energy and cost to transport, process and recycle materials.

While it can be depressing to realise that an action you felt good about is actually not as helpful as you thought, it’s important not to despair. Education is the first step, and there are indeed many small things you can do that will make a positive difference, including reducing, occasionally going without, educating others, and making your voice heard to corporations and your local governmental representatives.

Low impact living: Why bother?

A question that many people pose when it comes to doing small, good actions for the environment is – why bother? If it’s not convenient for me, why should I do it? My actions aren’t going to make a difference, I’m just one person.

Or another common objection, “How are you be eco-friendly if you still take flights/use a cell phone made of parts with a large negative impact/ etc.?”

I think there are three important points to make here.

The first, which I think is most relevant to me, is the idea of living in alignment with your values. As I have embraced the concept of mindfulness more in recent years, I’ve tried to become more conscious, aware and mindful of all of my choices, and the impact that they have. For me, this also meant thinking more about the waste that I produce, and trying to minimise it wherever possible. This has also meant trying to buy more of my clothes secondhand, to purchase things with less packaging, and to eliminate meat from my diet. Am I perfect? Far from it. I still buy some clothes new, I still occasionally eat fish, and I sometimes still slip up and end up having to use single-use plastic. I do what’s feasible and practical for me at this point in my life, keeping in mind the impact that my actions have, and minimising it where I can.

The point is, even if one person’s personal impact is small, I think the idea of living in line with what you believe in is worthwhile.

Secondly, and related to the first point is the ripple effect impact of one person’s actions. If through my choices I can inspire others to make small changes to their daily habits, together these small actions may add up to a larger impact.

There’s a saying, don’t doubt the power of a small group of committed people to change the world, indeed it’s the only thing that ever has. If everyone thinks that what they do personally doesn’t matter and is never going to make a difference, then of course things are never going to get any better.

Finally, I want to acknowledge the fact that while individual actions are a great starting point, and one that we have the greatest control over, what’s really going to make the difference is systemic changes, through policy and by corporations. The average person just does not have the bandwidth (money, time, willingness) to go to extreme lengths to be eco-friendly. Corporations and governments need to step up and take responsibility for making eco-friendly choices not only easy, but the default option – the only option. And one catalyst for getting them to do so will be more people making noise, caring about the issues and living those values in their own everyday lives.

Not to grow is not to wither

The men in suits
Think that things
Should grow
Forever.

The men up in the towers
And on the television screens
Speak of never-ending growth
And order “Keep on buying things!”

They tell us not to worry,
We all must do our part.
Wrapping up our presents
Ripped from mother nature’s heart.

The goods run down the factory line
Churning out production
Must meet this quarter’s targets,
Or face employee reduction

Machines pass bottles
From left to right,
Robots replacing bodies.

How could we
Have put up a fight,
When we’re brainwashed to believe
That growth’s a democratic right?

What will come of man,
Without work?
Just idle hands,
Will we go berserk?

Will we slowly scroll
Our way into oblivion?
Materialism ballooning
Across every meridian?

The owners of capital
Relax in their villas
People take to the streets,
Movements of guerillas

“How would you like
Your facts today?”
A polite inquiry.
“We serve them in many ways,”

“Will you take them scrambled?
With a side of white lies?
Will you take a gamble
On a full portion of facts?

Surely you couldn’t stomach that
Half a portion will do,
And don’t take them too fast
Take some time to chew

You might feel ill,
Facts these days,
Not so easy to swallow…

But what when we stop,
and we spit out their lies
When we take back our time
and open our eyes?

Reject their false desires
The wants they’ve created.
When we rediscover
What it means to be sated

When we recalculate need
And refuse to exceed it
Eschew the greed,
And decline to feed it

When will we realise
that not to grow
is not to wither,
To slow is not to die.

When we return to what’s basic,
What’s ours and what’s true
We’ll realise it’s not growth,
What we need is gratitude.

What is the circular economy?

The concept of the circular economy (CE) has rapidly gained popularity over the past few years, and is currently being promoted by the EU, several national governments and many businesses around the world. There are numerous definitions of the circular economy, but perhaps the simplest is that it’s a cradle-to-cradle approach – one that aims to close the loop and bring consciousness and ownership to the entire lifecycle of a product.

It’s about manufacturers taking responsibility for their product from production through to disposal, recycling or reuse. It’s the same kind of system that many countries use for bottle recycling, for example. Bottles are sold with a small deposit fee to incentivise consumers to to bring them back, they are then collected by a retailer, shipped back to the manufacturer, cleaned and reused.

Now imagine this idea being implemented everywhere, for all kinds of products. No longer would you be left wondering what to do with old electronics that don’t work anymore, debating if you should just throw them out or spend time and effort to look up where you can recycle them, and then making a special trip to a special electronics recycling location that’s probably out of your way.

Or with clothes – H&M is one retailer that is now collecting old textiles, whether they can be reused as clothes or not. In exchange, they offer customers a discount coupon for their next purchase. Similarly, some sustainable razor companies now have programs where you can safely send back your old blades instead of throwing them away.

In this way, the circular economy aims to minimise waste, make the most of resources and reduce externalities. It’s in contrast to the traditional linear economy, which operates along a one-way chain of resource extraction, production, and disposal – which the manufacturer isn’t responsible for.

Moving away from the linear model will help promote a more sustainable society, allow us to design waste out of the system, and slowly separate productive economic activity from the consumption of finite resources.

Low Impact Lifestyle: Day 5

Started out my day strong, bringing my reusable water bottle to work again (+1 points). On the way to work I grabbed a Butterbreze from the bakery (i.e. buttered [soft] pretzel, it’s a normal breakfast in Germany, ok?), and handed over my reusable cloth bag, so no waste there: +1 points again!

For lunch, my colleague and I went to eat out and enjoy the sun on a patio. Unfortunately I’m not yet in the habit of carrying around containers for takeaway food/ leftovers, so I asked to have my pizza packed up when I couldn’t finish it. I then received my remaining pizza slices in aluminium foil. At least it wasn’t plastic or styrofoam, but still, -1 points for not yet having a reusable container for takeaway food. (Admittedly this might be kind of awkward to bust out while at lunch with colleagues.)

For dinner I ate the remaining slices of pizza, and put the aluminium foil in the recycling. Not sure whether this is really positive, but no waste appears to have been generated, and no plastic was used today.

Again, that leaves me with a score of +1. Not perfect, but not such a bad day.

P.S. Are these posts becoming boring?! Perhaps I’ll only continue to update on my low waste/ low plastic challenge if there’s an interesting development. I look forward to writing some deeper and more well-researched articles later this weekend when I have a bit more time. Until then, keep it sustainable my lovely readers! [ If you exist yet 😉 ]

Low Impact Lifestyle: Day 4

Brought my reusable stainless steel water bottle to work today – no more drinking out of plastic for this girl! +1

We made salad bowls together at work today, and I was assigned to bring feta cheese, so I did create some plastic packaging waste from the cheese. I’m not at a level yet where I’m going to make my own cheese or go to a specialty cheese shop with my own paper… So I will have to accept this small amount of waste generation for now. -1

Positively, I think that was the only waste I created all day! Dinner was aubergine with penne (plastic packaging, but it’s not empty so no waste yet) and tomato sauce from a glass jar that I look forward to keeping and reusing. I plan to buy my pasta from a cardboard box next time! (Or bulk!) +1

Impact score: I’ll give myself a +1. Not a bad day overall!

Low Impact Lifestyle: Day 3

Today I brought my whole lunch in Tupperware and didn’t buy anything new – I therefore award myself +2 points for sustainability.

I did however eat my breakfast (yogurt) out of a plastic yogurt container with a foil and plastic lid: – 1 point for sustainability.

I rode my bike to work! + 1 point for sustainability

I drank out of a plastic water bottle at work: -1 point for sustainability.

I will recycle the yogurt container, and the water bottles will be picked up, cleaned and reused: +1 point for sustainability?

I just can’t commit to making my own yogurt at this point! It’s just too much to ask of a working girl isn’t it? But maybe next time I’ll buy the yogurt in the glass jar, which has a deposit on it and is collected back at the grocery store. (Or I’ll keep it to support the burgeoning jar collection for bulk food in my cupboard).

Sustainability score for Day 4: + 2

In the positives at least, but I think I can still do even better!

Low Impact Lifestyle: Day 2

An update on my Low Impact (i.e. low waste, low plastic use) journey: Yesterday I wrote about how trying to be zero waste makes you feel like a failure multiple times a day.

Today I am proud to report two small wins. First, a colleague told me that I inspired him to purchase re-usable produce/ bakery bags. Very proud to have already influenced at least one person to make sustainable changes in their lifestyle!

Second, I left the grocery store today without any plastic or waste! To be fair, I only purchased three items, but nonetheless, goal accomplished by bringing my own bag for my buns (ciabatta rolls) and selecting package-free produce. This also ended up with me leaving with a large head of lettuce in my arms, but I was able to put it into my reusable bag once I ate the ciabatta rolls with lunch. Unfortunately I don’t like lettuce as much as arugula (rocket) or mixed greens (which were on sale), but it came without any plastic packaging, so I picked it.

One challenge still to overcome – the use of plastic water bottles in our office. I plan to speak to our office manager and ask her about the cost of the current bottle delivery/ pickup service*, and see if I can make a business case for a water filtration/ carbonation machine instead. Working in Germany, many people love to drink carbonated sparkling water, so this would be necessary to replace the current offering of flat and sparkling water bottles.

*They also pick the bottles up and supposedly clean and refill them, so it’s at least somewhat of a closed, circular supply chain, but I suspect it’s not as eco-friendly as simply having a water filtration and carbonation machine in the office and saving on all those supply chain and transportation steps.