If you’re a parent, or a teacher, or someone who spends any time around small people, the phrase “there’s no such thing…” will no doubt have you reciting rhyming couplets about tusks and claws and teeth and jaws. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about – that’s a shame, it’s actually quite sweet poetry. Check out The Gruffalo, it’s ace).
So I’m going to say this quietly, because it’s flying in the face of the zeitgeist of the day. There’s no such thing as zero waste. Even though it’s on every lifestyle blog and featured in every weekend supplement you lay your eyes on at the moment. Live the zero waste life. 20 steps to reduce your waste. The 10 must-have zero waste beauty products. Zero waste your kitchen! (Insta-yuck).
I think that the concept of zero waste is approximately as realistic as the big, bad Gruffalo himself. And definitely more dangerous.
So what is it all actually about? Throw nothing away, ever again? The basic principle of zero waste is to send nothing to landfill. Ok, great. I think it’s not hugely controversial to say that burying huge amounts of rubbish in big holes scarring the surface of the planet is not a great idea. Landfill sites can leak methane and other dangerous gases into the atmosphere as waste breaks down, and plastic waste in landfill will cause microplastic pollution into the watercourse. All very bad. BUT. Only 24% of UK waste now goes to landfill (2017 figures, sorry… it’s ridiculously difficult to find more recent waste data for the UK online). An increasing amount is now being incinerated.
It’s also difficult to find out the absolute percentage of UK waste being incinerated – possibly 10% in England? Possibly 42%? (Maybe it’s hard to find this out, as these Energy Recovery Facilities are usually run by private companies?) Certainly, incineration has increased hugely in recent years. Proponents says it’s a good thing – generate heat and energy from waste, closed loop system. Bingo. (Also avoid the new landfill tax). But there are opponents too of course, raising concerns in terms of air pollution, contribution to climate change and undermining recycling. Plus, there seems to be a pretty major problem with the ash residue – it can be filtered to separate out potentially recyclable materials such as glass and metal, then used as a building material, but does it contain microplastics which will leach into the watercourses?
But the hands of local councils appear to have been forced; the UK has nowhere near the infrastructure required to keep up with its plastic recycling demands, and many developing countries are now refusing to take imports. Quite rightly. (There is a whole other article here about climate injustice and the grim post-colonial approach of outsourcing this problem overseas). So more and more waste is being incinerated.
Honestly, I’m not a waste management expert, or a physics person; I’m a mum and a blogger with an English degree who’s also done 15 years hard labour in the NHS. I don’t understand the science behind all this stuff, but I’m worried about it.
Is it better to incinerate your plastic Coke bottle, and contribute to global heating and air pollution, or put it in the recycling bin, knowing it might end up on a rubbish tip in a faraway country, or in the ocean? How can we possibly know?
So the answer is to go zero waste, right? Rid your house of plastic, replace with glass and metal. Buy your Coke in a glass bottle. Put it in the recycling and it will almost certainly be recycled in the UK, in a closed loop system, to make another glass bottle. Ace. Next?
But it’s not that simple, is it? Glass is much heavier than plastic, so uses more fuel to transport, generating more carbon emissions. Contributing to the climate crisis, undoubtedly. The glass recycling process is hugely energy-hungry. Even Coca Cola themselves have got some qualms about the current spike in sales of their glass bottled products. So, buy your Coke in a can then? Well, drinking from cans might kill you… (Actually, not really – no evidence of harm from BPA lining or aluminium “leaching” unless you drink 1000 cans of soda per day, but hey it’s a good headline, isn’t it?)
Do you really need the Coke at all? Reduce, refuse, have a minimalist lifestyle. You should probably not be having all that sugar and nasty chemicals anyway, right?
It’s actually pretty easy for me to refuse soft drinks, in whatever packaging they come. Wine, less so. We all have our vices.
The point I am trying, possibly somewhat lumberingly, to reach, is that rejecting plastic absolutely shouldn’t be the sole point. Everything has a waste impact, absolutely everything you consume or bring into your house has been transported from somewhere and been packed in a material which has a carbon footprint of some degree. Let’s not forget that paper bags are made from trees, of course, and trees basically are the only credible solution currently existing to mitigating against humanity’s carbon emissions.
Much of the zero waste discourse urges you to rid your house of plastic, along with perpetuating all the myths and scandal about plastic leaching from every surface and poisoning you and your children. Not only does this create an unachievable and intimidating aim which could seem too huge to even contemplate, but also it’s all focused on the individual. You are responsible for fixing this, because you throw too much stuff away. You make bad purchasing choices. You should budget better to be able to afford more expensive, lower waste goods. The focus on the individual takes the pressure off corporations and governments, who arguably hold the key to real and sustainable change in relation to the climate crisis as a whole, as well as the complex issue of plastic pollution.
The ‘you’ in this discourse is, incidentally, almost always a woman. Women hold a huge amount of purchasing power as the key domestic decision-makers in the majority of households. But how do you manage to shop at a zero waste shop or organise delivery of an organic vegetable box when you’re out all day at work? How do you justify the expense of plastic-free toiletries if you’re a low income family? How do you respond when your kids are clamouring for the latest plastic LOL doll monstrosity which all their friends have? (Plastic toy snobbery is a particular personal pet loathing of mine). The added pressure on women to mastermind this stuff seems to me to be another largely unspoken problem.
The call to be “plastic-free” seems to generate some other weird paradoxes. Some examples I’ve witnessed:
- Driving to the local zero waste shop to stock up on loose goods in nice glass containers (which are too heavy to carry on the bus or on foot, hence driving).
- Trying out numerous plastic-free shampoo bars or deodorants before finding one which suits, thus wasting the resources used to make and package those products. Plastic or no plastic, it’s still waste.
- Throwing away (yes, really) perfectly serviceable plastic food storage containers and replacing with glass and metal ones, to “become zero waste”.
- Throwing away (again, yes, really) plastic toys that they disapprove of, which have been given to their children.
Some of this stuff is jaw-dropping in its ridiculousness to me, but people get caught up in their cause, and spend hours arguing and being vitriolic on the internet, criticising the efforts of others and making it seem like nothing is ever enough.
Ridiculous stories aside, it really is incredibly hard to know what to do for the best.
I used a tin of coconut milk in a vegan curry last night (we’re not vegan, we’re not doing Veganuary, but I love Jack Monroe’s recipes and we are gradually reducing our meat consumption). Is it better to use coconut milk from Thailand (ethically sourced and produced? Who knows…) or cream from a cow at an organic farm in Kent? Is it better to buy air-freighted strawberries from Panama, or a steak from Surrey?
I wish I had all the answers. I don’t. I’m scared about climate change, scared about the impact it’s going to have on my son’s life. I’m trying to make a difference, feeling constantly guilty that I’m not doing enough.
But I’m not going zero-waste. I’m trying to educate myself. I’m trying to reduce packaging waste, while also thinking about the wider impact of all my choices.
Like walking 50 minutes home from nursery school with my son, rather than driving. While he eats some Christmas chocolate that possibly has palm oil in it, and glugs a mini Tetrapack of apple juice, which may or may not actually be recycled. Because you can’t win ‘em all, folks, but you can win some of them. And I think that for now that’s good enough for me.
Hannah is a freelance writer and blogger, who shares ideas for living more sustainably at her blog, www.everydayradical.net
|The Everyday Radical Just an ordinary mum, making everyday radical changes to save the world for her extraordinary son. http://www.everydayradical.net|
She believes that radicalism starts at home. She is currently also working on a strategic project with a public sector client, while dabbling in some fiction writing.
Hannah lives in South East London with a marauding toddler, an occasionally-marauding husband and a rescue cat, known as The Fluffbeast, who believes he has a very tragic life.
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