Going Round in Circles

Is it possible to be zero waste?

No. It absolutely isn’t. Of course it isn’t.

Every single thing you own will be waste eventually.

I’m looking around my room as I write this (I’m lying in bed…). Eventually the wooden furniture will be old and tatty and out of date and will be replaced. The bedding will get thin and worn and old-fashioned and be replaced. The TV will stop working. One by one the ornaments will get broken.

The point is, everything will be waste.

Not straight away – but eventually.

Everything.

We can’t do anything at all about the stuff we already have. But we can make sure that we get the best use out of every little bit of it, and that we don’t buy any more until we absolutely have to. That’s not ‘zero waste’, not even close – but it’s probably the best we can hope for.

So what do people really mean when they talk about ‘zero waste’?

Reading the ‘zero waste’ websites, the first step is to recycle as much as possible. That makes sense – so long as everything is, in fact, recycled. But we know it isn’t, as I discussed in my post ‘Out of Sight Out of Mind’ a few weeks ago.

The next step is to re-use items, wherever possible. Re-use what you already have – buying new ‘re-usable’ stuff is sort of missing the point, I think. Even the re-usable stuff will become waste in the end.

Then there’s re-purposing – using something that would have been thrown away, for something other than what it was intended for. Actually, no, I don’t want to cut the bottom off of a lemonade bottle  and use it as a soap dish or use the small punnets from supermarket fruit for separating things in my dressing table drawer. Do you see what I’m driving at? Re-purposing only goes so far.

We’re told we should buy things that aren’t made of plastic. This worries me a bit. We started using plastic in the first place because the other resources were being depleted, and because plastic was cheaper and, well, often better.

  • Paper bags instead of plastic, paper cups instead of plastic. In fact paper anything – aren’t we supposed to be saving paper? Don’t we already have enough of a problem with trees being chopped down and not replaced?
  • Bamboo – I really don’t get this one. How far has that bamboo travelled? Not exactly local, is it. And besides, haven’t the pandas suffered enough??
  • Stainless steel drinking straws – seriously? Costly, impossible to clean, and extremely resource-heavy.
  • Cotton bags – cotton production is a very heavy user of water resources, the fertilizers required are detrimental to the environment, and it isn’t grown locally.

If you google ‘zero waste’ you will find an array of things that you can buy that will help you to be zero waste, apparently. You’ll get a lot closer to zero if you simply don’t buy any more stuff.

But here’s the thing – if we did in fact do as I suggest, and just stopped buying stuff, what would happen? Well, all the factories making all the stuff would go out of business. And all the people working in the factories making all the stuff would be out of work. And all the people working in the transport industry, moving all the stuff around, would be out of work. And all the people working in the shops selling all the stuff would be out of work.

Our society depends on the making and buying of stuff. We can’t just stop making it and buying it.

And also – plastic is such a versatile and useful material. It’s very, very good at what it does. Is it really feasible to go Plastic Free?

So here’s another thought. Let’s not kid ourselves that we can simply stop using it. Instead let’s get things sorted so that our plastic is actually recycled. Properly recycled. Again, and again and again.

Let’s treat our plastic waste, not as waste, but as a primary resource for making new products. And let’s do it over and over again, with the intention that plastic should never ever get into the waste stream at all, it should be used, discarded, recycled, and re-used ad infinitum. I think we have no choice.

The circular economy is all about taking waste and re-using it – on a grand scale. Not at the personal level (but don’t let me stop you) – rather at the national, regional and global level. Those dumps in Malaysia should be viewed as plastic mines, where industry can dig for plastic which can be turned into useful things again. Let’s stop seeing plastic as the problem. It’s much easier to recycle than, say, ceramics or wood. Let’s start seeing the benefits of a material that has an infinite variety of uses and can be recycled when it’s no longer needed.

Eventually we need to get very good at making plastic stuff with recycling built in at the design stage. We need to only use plastics that can be recycled easily and locally. We need to avoid making things of mixed materials that make the recycling process difficult or impossible. We need to think ahead.

I really do think it’s the only way forward.

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5 Comments Add yours

  1. Katrina says:

    I agree with a lot of what you have said but one of the problems that you haven’t mentioned is that unlike paper and glass and aluminium, most types of plastic cannot be recycled over and over again. Often, once you recycle it, it becomes a different type of plastic which cannot itself be recycled. As well as this, there are at least eight different types, such as PP, HDPE, LDPE, PVP. Most councils only recycle some of these (usually with the numbers 1-4 on the bottom). Every week people put black plastic trays and yogurt pots into the local recycling here, even though these are not recycled. Sometimes this completely contaminates the load depending on how your council deals with the sorting. So obviously a lot more education and accurate compliance are going to be required if we are to deal with plastics successfully.

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    1. I couldn’t agree more – it’s a subject I’m trying to educate myself on. One thing that could be done is for manufacturers to simply stop making black plastic trays!! Another issue is items that have the recycle logo on, but can’t actually be recycled locally. It’s all VERY confusing for consumers (and I include myself as a consumer!)

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  2. anglosvizzera says:

    The ‘circular’ thing is something I’ve been harping on about for years. It’s all very well recycling something but it needs to become a product that people will buy for that to work – and also not some useless ‘ornamental’ object that has no purpose in life. Years ago I did a bit of Christmas shopping in Bath. I wanted to get a few items as gifts for the family that weren’t going to be a waste of money and weren’t necessarily food and/or drink. There was a shop in town that advertised itself as selling all recycled products, but they were almost all ‘decorative’ so I didn’t bother. So we need to know what has been recycled and then choose to buy that, if we really need to. There are so many shops selling rubbish that even charity shops are full of it. I love browsing in charity shops for things I can use (wool, fabric etc) or to replace something that’s unmendable, but the shelves are full of awful, tasteless ornaments that people have wisely thrown out.

    Also as you indicate, the pointlessness of creating ‘stuff’ just to provide jobs etc is another of my bugbears. Maybe some of these people and ‘factories’ could become experts in repairing things that we already have instead of making more of them? There is a lot of cheap labour being used in less developed countries but a lot of them rely on that for their survival, so the answer to the whole ‘consumerism’ problem isn’t easy. We are, in the west, the worst culprits, of course, as consumers, and many of us are starting to make changes in our lives – but those in developing countries that have not necessarily seen the harmful outcome of it all first hand are still thirsting for more ‘stuff’ that they see westerners ‘enjoying’; it becomes a status symbol for many. I sometimes think that they themselves will have to go through the whole horrible process to understand, just like we have – learn by mistakes. But is there time to be able to do that before it’s too late?

    As for plastic, ultimately it could become fuel to provide energy in a properly-designed incinerator that doesn’t spew out anything harmful to the environment or atmosphere. There are some in Sweden and The Netherlands that, I think, only produce water vapour – but…water vapour is a greenhouse gas, and there’s more and more of it in the atmosphere driving climate change, apparently worse than carbon dioxide. So even ‘harmless’ water vapour is contributing to the problem. If the water vapour was condensed and returned to the ground as actual water instead of being released as a gas, that might work?

    I think that bamboo when grown as a crop, which is not intended as panda-food, may be sustainable – it absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as it grows which is effectively ‘locked in’ while it is in use as a ‘product’, probably doesn’t use too much energy to turn into something useful, not sure about how much water etc it might use to make yarn though. But in these “eco-friendly” ‘bamboo’ cups and plates and so on, there is a lot of resin of some kind used to stick the bamboo fibres together, so they aren’t as ‘biodegradable’ as we would like, I’ve heard. So depending on what it’s used for, it may be a good alternative – maybe we can grow it here? I’ve got some bamboo in my garden which seems happy enough!

    https://thegreenhubonline.com/2017/11/27/how-sustainable-is-bamboo-and-is-it-really-eco-friendly/

    Similar story with planting trees to make paper – they sequester carbon too, so as long as the process used to manufacture them into something else doesn’t counteract that benefit, paper would be ‘ok’ as coming from sustainable forests, there are more trees planted to replace those being removed. Younger trees that are growing rapidly sequester more carbon than mature ones, so that is one ‘good thing’. I don’t know if this kind of forestry affects the soil adversely – I don’t suppose they need to add fertilisers or pesticide control in the way that food crops require. Paper can also be recycled into card of various types, loo paper and so on – and may in some cases be recycled again and again (not the loo paper, of course – I hope).

    I did a degree in Architecture years ago – I learned then that timber as a building material is a very good product for many reasons: it ‘locks in’ carbon, it can be worked using minimal processes (unlike bricks or concrete building materials), is aesthetically pleasing much of the time, ages beautifully compared with, say, concrete, is probably better for us to live inside (assuming it isn’t treated or painted with harmful stuff), has a good insulation value and no doubt more.

    Straws – there’s a thing. I rarely use, or have ever used, a straw. I can only see the reason for their existence for, perhaps, helping someone who has a disability or injury or some other health problem to be able to ingest liquids. So they are really a ‘luxury’ item that the majority of us can live without – can’t we?

    The whole subject is vast – and the solutions are not obvious as there are so many ‘knock-on’ effects that are either ignored or brushed under the carpet to try and sell supposedly eco-friendly products – ultimately it does seem to come back to money. As long as we live in a capitalist society, we will have that problem.

    And economic ‘growth’ cannot grow for ever! What we need is a completely new model for humans to follow that may reduce pollution, reduce consumerism, provide alternatives to the ‘eat – work – sleep’ cycle which may ultimately enhance our wellbeing. It isn’t something that can happen overnight, of course – and to stop the current juggernaut of mass consumerism will be extremely difficult, but I don’t think there is any other solution…

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    1. You’re right – it’s a huge subject. I’m trying to educate myself a bit more about it – for every ‘solution’ there appears to be a good reason why it won’t work!!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. anglosvizzera says:

        Yes, and the trouble is the media, or those that stand to benefit, play on the simplicity of things to con us into making changes that probably don’t help or may make things even worse! Similar scenario with the ‘veganism’ cult – whilst it’s obvious that mass production of meat and animal produce is mostly harmful and uncaring, stopping consumption of all animal produce and replacing with all plant-based foods is also not the answer, both from an environmental aspect as well as a health aspect – but there does seem to be some kind of evangelical belief by many choosing ‘veganism’ that prevents them from seeing the bigger picture.

        Liked by 1 person

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