As soon as the garbage man drives away with our detritus most of us think it’s no longer our problem. Out of sight out of mind. But all that garbage, along with the waste created to produce it, is simply put in a big hole in the ground, or it’s first burned in an incinerator and then dumped in a landfill. Both ways produce a lot of pollution—the materials and food scraps that fill these landfills breakdown and eventually release methane and other toxic substances that pollute, kill animals or destroy their habitat and damage the environment in many other ways.
And man, we produce a lot of garbage! I wanted to measure how much waste my family produced in a week but within four days the 55 litre container was overflowing. Mind you, this container doesn’t include our food waste and I’ve been reciting the Reduce-Reuse-Recycle mantra for a while, I’m quite conscious of what goes in my shopping trolley. So, even with sustainability in mind, I’m still creating a lot of pollution.
I guess for me the issue is that I’ve focused on recycling more than everything else. Recycling is the easiest part as it requires minimal change in routines and habits. It does have its benefits, recycling reduces the amount garbage on the planet—and consequently the pollution it generates—but for various reasons, recycling alone isn’t enough to make a considerable impact on the environment . Firstly, for you to produce one bin of household garbage, the extraction-production-distribution process has already filled up 70 garbage bins—so your bin sitting in the kerb is just the tip of the iceberg. To compound the problem, each year we are increasing our consuming and offsetting even more the benefits of recycling. Another issue is that some products simply cannot be recycled—think items like rubber tires, Styrofoam, plastic, fiberglass and metals.
Treating and re-processing our waste can only make a difference to a point. What we really need to do is to reduce the amount of waste we produce. This means we have to avoid over-consumption, something very hard to achieve because in the developed world where we have a lifestyle that supports consuming more than what we need (if everyone adopted my lifestyle for example it would require 3.5 planet Earths to provide the resources—according to WWF, take the quiz—I’m horrified with my results!).
Changing a lifestyle is hard, we are creatures of routine. We are not used to using products (clothes, shoes, gadgets, toys, decoration items, cars, etc, etc) until they completely wear out instead of buying newer, more fashionable items. We buy more food than we need to eat (think obesity crisis), we buy by impulse without really considering if we need it (think mindless retail therapy). To change our consumption habits we need to develop awareness that there is a problem and the motivation to want to make a difference.
In the last two years I’ve grown interested in learning more about the harmful effects of human activity on the environment. But I’ve been on this planet for four decades, why have I taken so long? After all, scientists and activists have been talking about it for ages. I guess like most of us, I was just too focused on my routines and didn’t really stop to consider the impact of my actions on the planet. I believe everyone has their lightbulb moment when they realise there is a real issue and that they can part of the solution. Thankfully it’s not too late to start taking action yet.
If you care and want to make a difference to the environment by reducing your consumption, here are a few ideas for beginners like me:
- Start by measuring your impact. In this way you will learn how to make the most effective changes to your lifestyle. See calculator.
- Think before you buy. Are you making an emotional purchase or do you really need the item?
- Buy products (including food items) with the least amount of packaging.
- Fix things whenever possible. For instance, my son just cut a hole in this school pants. Ordinarily I would turn this item into a wipe cloth and buy a new one ($30 won’t break the bank). But with my new mindset I will get it repaired for $15.
- Use your consumer power. Reject food and goods produced in an unsustainable manner. Your habits can propel companies to listen and change their practices.
- Raise awareness. The lifestyle changes we make as individuals are critical, but we need mainstream participation. Use social media to share the word, add your voice to online campaigns and support high-level policy change.
I hope that one day it will take much longer for my family to fill up a 55 litre bin with garbage.