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Don’t give up!

27 Jun

I recently heard someone say that recycling is pointless, that we should just put everything into landfill and be done with it.

You’re probably about as dumbfounded right now as I was when I heard this. I couldn’t believe it. People, even now, believe this. It’s terribly sad. Firstly, let’s look at how this common misconception starts and then spreads….

With the exclusion of people who for whatever reason simply cannot participate in recycling household products it’s widely believed that everybody should recycle. We’re taught that recycling is good and ethical and that we should do it. Most people accept this and have no problem with the act of recycling in fact they enjoy it because they know that they’re making a contribution to a better planet. But there are still many people who are able to recycle yet choose not to. This comes down to one or any combination of these three things:

Laziness – I can’t be bothered recycling

Self Righteousness – I shouldn’t have to recycle

Misinformation – I believe that recycling is a waste of time

So, lazy and self righteous people have probably had an entire lifetime to develop these habits and are unlikely to change anytime soon without intervention. There’s not much we can do for them. The misinformed people on the other hand have the potential to do some serious damage because it’s more likely that they’ll be passionate and motivated, unlike the other two… we can help them!

So why would people believe that plastic, glass, metals and other waste that could be recycled is better off in the ground?

Because it takes more energy to recycle items and turn them into something new than it does to just ‘create a new one’. And the output is significantly less than the input. And many recyclables are shipped overseas to be processed. So why bother?

The above is only true for certain materials. Some things use less energy to be recycled than to create from new and some materials, like aluminium have the equal outputs to inputs. Regardless of the specifics, it’s thinking like this that has gotten humans into all the trouble that we currently face and it’s less than helpful. Here’s why….

Energy is only one part of manufacture. It’s not that simple. First we need to consider where the materials for the product are coming from and how easily they can be replaced. As it turns out, the items that we normally recycle have been selected because they are not made from renewable resources. Plastic (oil), glass and metals all come out of the ground and are finite. This means that one day they will run out (probably not in the misinformed person’s lifetime which is likely to be why they do not care). This is a good reason to recycle them regardless of the energy used to do so.

So we can’t keep making new stuff forever. And what about the REAL costs of making things from virgin materials in the first place? The statistic above about recycling using more energy than creating new products may be true of the actual energy used in a factory that spits out glass bottles. But what about everything that needs to happen BEFORE that factory can start producing the bottles? Example:

First of all, glass is made from limestone, sand, sodium carbonate and aluminium. These materials come from all over the place and even before they are transported long distances to the factory to be made into glass they need to be mined out of the ground first! This involves huge amounts of energy, resources and infrastructure and don’t forget that these materials are non-renewable!! Glass requires the materials to be processed/crushed using powerful machinery and to be heated to very high temperatures BEFORE the materials are again transported, processed, heated and combined to create glass. AND mining usually results in the destruction of irreplaceable natural habitats.

So even though the factory that recycles old glass bottles to turn them into new ones may use more power than the factory that combines all the mined and transported materials to make new glass, this comparison is by no means realistic when all the other factors of creating new glass are considered.

Also landfill is not a magic place that makes problems disappear. There are numerous issues with burying waste in the ground. Public health, emissions, space not to mention environmental damage and pests. Land needs to be cleared to make way for landfills, habitats are destroyed and pests invade. Sites need to be deep, protected and away from highly populated areas leaving few desirable options in already occupied areas.

Transporting waste (that could be recycled) further away creates unnecessary pollution which will only increase as existing sites fill up and new ones are built even further away again. As many recyclable items break down they release carbon dioxide and methane even moreso if they have not been cleaned and still contain food. Items like glass will never break down. Buried forever when it could be recycled. As the content of landfills breakdown they also release toxins into the atmosphere, the soil and into precious ground water.

Bob has been looking into technology whereby old landfill sites will be mined to sort and recycle the contents. This is now becoming a common practice as humans recognise the mistakes that we’ve made and try to do something to fix them. Imagine how much energy and resources could have been saved if those recyclable items were never buried in the first place.

Just because it can’t be ‘perfect’ now doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t at least make an attempt at doing something that’s on the way to perfect. This is how humans work. We start with an idea and then we improve on it and make it better. If we decided that recycling was too inefficient now and gave it up then you can imagine how much extra waste humans would produce and how quickly we would run out of resources?

Consider this: We continue recycling even though at this stage it is inefficient due to the carbon miles and energy involved. As we progress we find more efficient and local ways to recycle AND before too long renewable energy is available which reduces (or eliminates) the environmental impact that recycling used to have. As we move into the future we will continue to improve both production and system design resulting in an efficient (near perfect) approach to sustainable recycling.

THIS  WILL  HAPPEN. Isn’t this a reason to try instead of giving up now?


Degrade this

15 Sep

This one’s for those of you that are tired of vids and are missing what this blog used to be about – having an opinionated rant!

So I’ve been thinking alot about product packaging that I currently don’t have to deal with thanks to my
local food co-op and I’m concerned that after we move we’ll be back to buying everything in stupid plastic packets. Not looking forward to that. We will do our best to avoid it where we can but it will be tough!

We have been able to reduce our household waste by about 75 percent – We have a regular (large) size wheelie bin which is only emptied once a fortnight and is never full. We do this just by shopping consciously and saying no to excessive packaging and plastic bags. We don’t feel like we’re making any compromises at all, in fact I think we live we live a fairly decadent lifestyle.

This is one of the things I learnt from No Impact Man. So much waste in the world is created for perceived ‘convenience’. It might be convenient to use a plastic bag to take home your groceries – but how inconvenient is it to bring your own bag?

Not really at all.

It might take you a while to remember to take them with you. If retailers don’t offer you a free bag anymore that may provide you with more of an incentive. Or if avoiding plastic bags is important to you then you may already be motivated to remember to pack them on your shopping trips.

Living consciously doesn’t have to involve compromise.

Once people adjust to bringing their own bags it becomes normal and they are no longer concerned about whether or not it used to be convenient to be provided with a free bag. This is why I say ‘perceived convenience’ because that’s all it is.

And there’s no doubt about it, people get a kick out of thinking that they’re doing something ‘environmentally friendly’ – probably because most things we do are not so much. I’ve noticed an increase in bags and packaging labeled as ‘degradable’, in fact ‘degradable’ is now a sellable feature which feeds on that good feeling that people get when they make a ‘conscious’ choice.

Sounds evil to me.
Although I was skeptical I hoped that biodegradable bags were actually making a difference. It turns out that they’re not…

I’ll keep this brief but basically there are two types of biodegradable plastics.
One of them requires a special, controlled process in order to be broken down and as a result they need to be taken to a recycling facility in order to be effectively disposed of. These are the type of bags that you now get at Target etc. in SA. They promote the fact that they are biodegradable but are probably banking on the fact that it’s unlikely you will be bothered to seek out a recycling facility and will probably just reuse them once or twice and then throw them away.

Most people will probably still feel better about themselves considering that it has the word ‘degradable’ printed on the side. The truth is, it does about as much damage in landfill as a regular plastic bag.

The other type is the one that is used for the smaller white shopping bags and bin liners. This one will actually degrade in the right environment. Unfortunately , the right environment is closer to your compost bin than landfill. So yes, these bags will eventually break down if you put them in the compost but if you are using them to put rubbish in that’s then destined for landfill then it’s unlikely that you’re bag will be any different to the thousands of regular plastic bags that surround it.

And even if it did…

It would break down and leave behind all of the contents of the bag – plastic packaging that someone else decided was convenient for you.

The world would be so much shitter without you, Colin

29 Sep

Colin Beavan that is. You are probably like me and have never heard of him. And if you are anything like me, you will probably appreciate his efforts, his findings and his writing just as much as I do.

Recently I was in LA airport with a few hours to kill before my flight to Sydney. I had wandered around all of the shops and was trying to cure boredom while not spending any money, but was not really succeeding. I had already bought a copy of Dwell magazine, a milky way and about 6 bags of reece’s pieces (for gifts I swear).

I was feeling the effects of constant traveling and movement over the last two weeks. My body was struggling with just being in one place, that wasn’t bed, for more than an hour. I felt like I was moving even when I was sitting perfectly still. I needed… nothingness. I found a spot to sit by myself, listened to some relaxing music on my ipod and drifted into a dream, just being. I visualised places far more lush and peaceful than the grimy airport terminal and when I opened my eyes about 45 minutes later, I was completely relaxed.

Even though I was feeling totally at peace, I had an urge to walk… back to the bookstore that I had visited twice already to buy candy and a magazine. I wandered through the aisles of books with no expectations as I had already walked through here earlier and found nothing worth buying in american dollars. And then, there it was. Way up above my head on the top shelf, Colin’s book “No Impact Man”. I had to climb up on the the bottom shelf so that I could reach it. I did this without even considering what anyone might think of me.

The raw cardboard cover grabbed my attention, the blurb connected with me and after I flicked through a few pages I knew that I would enjoy this book. I decided it was worth an extra international transaction and read 1/4 of it before we boarded the plane, laughing and nodding out loud to myself.

Basically he spends a year of his life trying to reduce waste in his life as much as is humanly possible. Whether that be wasting plastic, water, power, emissions, anything.  Oh yeah and, he lives in an apartment in New York City.
It’s not like it’s anything ground-breakingly original. It seems that these days it’s cool to be green anyway. But the beauty of Colin’s story is that he is not trying to be rad or to have all the answers, in fact, throughout the book he confirms that he is just like you and me… someone that is concerned about the planet and climate change but feels that they can do nothing about it.

He proves us all wrong. He shares his challenges along the way and I connect hugely with his feelings of guilt when considering doing something that you know is ‘bad’. Sometimes it’s such a dilemma, especially when you take into account the old saying – When you know better you are expected to do better. Even if it’s only yourself that expects it!

This book makes me want to be a better person. I have become more conscious of things that used to be automatic, for example:

Bob and I normally share a container of roll-on deodorant. He has taken it away with him for a few days and I thought I had a spare one at home but I don’t. I had planned to buy one during my lunch break today at work and did not see that there were any other alternative apart from just simply buying a new one… until last night.

I was reading No Impact Man and Colin mentions that he has started using baking soda as deodorant. I consider it and then talk myself out of it before going to bed. When I woke up this morning I considered it again and then decided to stick to my original plan and to buy some today at lunch. It will get used right? It’s not really a waste is it?
I began to wonder about how I would go without deodorant at work until lunchtime. I opened the pantry and found the baking soda. This time I talked myself into it with the rationale that if it didn’t work I could at least buy some at lunch.

You might think that I’m crazy for rubbing baking soda into my armpits, but I tell you what, it worked better than any deodorant that I’ve ever used. I am going to use it again tomorrow and if it’s successful again then I may well make the switch permanently. This girl did. Read her blog, she’s awesome.

This got me thinking about not washing my hair again. I have major envy of many of the guys that I know who don’t wash their hair. I’ve found that with longer hair it’s alot harder to get away with. So far this year I’ve done a few week-long stints without washing my hair to reduce my it’s need to produce oil everyday. It works but it gradually goes back to wanting to be washed every day.

But today, my shampoo is almost empty and I’m inspired. Watch this space for an update.

So back to Colin… If I open the floodgates on everything I think and feel about this, we could all be here for a long time so I’ll just say this:

Read it.

I’ll lend it to you so you don’t have to buy anything new that comes in polluting packaging that’s designed to last forever yet to only be used once.