I feel incredibly frustrated – often – at how difficult it is to do the right thing with our “trash”. What do we do with used up batteries and lightbulbs, laptops that refuse to turn on, old mattresses and “pre-loved” clothing worn one too many times for the donation bin? How do we tell a “soft” plastic from a “hard” plastic with any certainty, and can a certain type of plastic even be recycled in our area at all? Does the “cardboard” almond milk container from the local shops have a hidden plastic lining, or can it go in the paper/cardboard recycling bin? And is it our responsibility as consumers to understand the detailed composition of materials in the things that we consume, so that we can “throw them away” correctly?
There is no such thing as away. Everything we throw away needs to go somewhere. It might get a second life, be recycled, be down-cycled or go to landfill. The more complex our products become, the more difficult it is to separate out the various materials that went into making it. It is also becoming much more difficult to repair products, especially products with electronics components. Not to mention that products often seem to be designed to have a relatively short life span, rather than to be long lasting. That way companies can sell us even more products! Often it seems to be cheaper to get a “free upgrade” of our phone than to replace a part in our old one, and before we know it we have several old phones in the “junk drawer” in the kitchen!
We should all make an effort to consume less – buying only the things we need (after careful consideration) – and to avoid unnecessary packaging. Single use straws, bags and coffee cups all have reusable alternatives. But, not everybody can or wants to be “zero waste”. DIY-ing almond milk on the weekend is not everyone’s idea of a good time, especially if we can get said almond milk from the local shops and spend our free time on something else. Plus, there are plenty of things we buy that we cannot actually make at home (not most of us anyway!), like electronics.
There needs to be a system in place that encourages a cradle-to-grave approach for consumer products. I was recently on the phone to my internet provider, wondering what I should do with my old modem after an upgrade. That’s up to you, said the helpdesk man, “it’s yours!”. Great, but I don’t need it anymore and it’s a few years old so I won’t be able to sell it.
So I did some research online to find out what I should do with e-waste like my old modem. On my local council website I found mostly references to private businesses who *might* take *certain* things, and links to two recovery centres located a long drive from my apartment. The council website noted that e-waste contains a lot of hazardous materials like arsenic, lead, cadmium and mercury – and – “We don’t want these in the environment”. Agreed – so please make it a little less tempting to hoard it in our junk drawer until it gets tossed in the landfill bin in frustration and confusion! (Not that we would ever do that of course, but, maybe *other people*).
I am from Sweden originally, and last summer I went to the local recycling station near my parents house to throw some things “away”. It’s a “one stop shop” drive through type situation, with large containers for different types of materials and a donation station for things that might be useful to someone else (see picture below). One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, after all. Don’t know where something goes? Just ask one of the staff for a hand. Most grocery stores in Sweden have reverse vending machines for bottles and cans which give you a credit note you exchange for money (or groceries) at the cash register. Some clothing shops are starting to charge for plastic bags. It is not a perfect system, but the overall recycling culture is better, more “second nature”, than in Australia. Why? Because it’s easy, or at least much easier.
It should be really easy to do the right thing with “trash”. There needs to be incentives in place to for companies to take into consideration what happens with a consumer product (including its packaging) at the end of its life (as well as throughout its life). Governments need to ensure that there is waste management infrastructure in place so that people, regular people, can use and understand it without much hassle or inconvenience. We, as the consumer, need to put pressure on companies to produce long lasting, repairable products and to use sustainable materials, and on (local) governments to offer us the services and information we need to do the right thing.
Try it: Consume contentiously, not too much and from companies who’s values you support, and using your voice to ask questions, offer suggestions and demand better.