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 Eventually the wooden furniture will be old and tatty and out of date and will be replaced.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.
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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