Rejecting the mythical land of “away”

The global waste situation is out of control and although there’s been a lot of media recently about ocean plastic, waste generally doesn’t get the same attention. Don’t get me wrong, getting the huge issue of ocean plastics into the general public’s consciousness is a great thing and reducing the amount of plastic we use contributes to the overall waste issue as well as stopping our seas becoming lethal places for their inhabitants. But globally we throw “away” over 2 billion tonnes of waste a year and that is expected to triple by 2100 to 11 million tonnes per day so the general topic needs attention too.  

“Away” means the waste being sent to a landfill site, for incineration or to a recycling plant. Landfill sites destroy the ecosystem that was there before, they stink, they release methane, carbon dioxide and other toxic gases into the air and leach chemicals into soil and water leading to groundwater and river contamination. Incineration involves burning the organic substances in the waste to produce heat and the residual inorganic components and ash go to landfill. This process also produces carbon dioxide (although with less global warming impact than the methane produced if the equivalent waste was put into landfill) and other toxic by-products. And then there’s the whole recycling situation. In the UK, 46% of household waste is recycled but how much of that actually ends up going into a new product and not in a river somewhere or landfill? Recycling within a functioning system is one way of making the most of our precious resources but throwing things to the mythical land of “away” isn’t sustainable.

I’ve been working gradually over the past few years on sending less to “away”. Bea Johnson’s book Zero Waste Home introduced me to the possibility of living without producing waste and inspired me to start reducing our waste, rather than just making sure we recycled what we could. I’ve worked through obvious things, mostly in the kitchen, the bathroom and for while we’re out. A zero waste shop (the lovely Keep) has recently opened in the town where I live and it’s made a big difference to my waste as I can now get bulk food and lots of cleaning products packaging free. We have a big wheelie bin for landfill waste and we fill about a quarter of it in a fortnight at the moment so we’re not doing too badly but I’m now feeling a bit stuck with what we’ve got left.

I’ve found changing my mindset about dairy really helpful – going from reducing it to eliminating it. Having an “all or nothing” goal seems to change how I think about it and removes the excuses. So I’m going to apply the same thinking to waste and aim for zero waste, rejecting the idea of forgetting things as soon as they are thrown “away” and taking responsibility for everything that I use and consume. This feel pretty daunting. I feel like I’ve done quite a lot already and the remaining things feel hard, expensive and/or time consuming. But …. other people have done it so it must be possible!

Inspired by @use.it.up on Instagram, I’ve categorised things by how hard they seem and to try and catch everything, I’ve been through the bins (thankfully as we have a separate food waste bin it wasn’t too disgusting) and kept a track of everything that’s being thrown away for the past couple of weeks. There’s plenty of space too for things I’ve missed.

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So here goes! I’m going to start with the easy things and move my way across. Maybe some things that I currently think are hard will surprise me and be easier than I think. All helpful suggestions very welcome.

  1. This is really inspirational! It has renewed an interest in me to take more steps in my household’s waste reduction instead of believing that the magic recycling bin will take care of everything. You have already accomplished so much! When I compare tasks complete against your “hard” list it feels like you have gotten over the largest humps and now it’s the most unwieldy but perhaps not highest impact items remaining. You have a lot to celebrate already!

    This concept is almost never discussed in the US. The first time I actually saw the idea of zero waste living was the 2009 documentary ,”No Impact Man”. This guy in New York decided to turn off most of his utilities, make most things himself all while living in a large metropolitan city that is predicated on over-consumption. The documentary did get around to discussing that he wasn’t doing this alone as his wife, who didn’t know what she was getting herself in, started as a reluctant participant. It was a lot to watch and take.

    I wonder how much harm this did to the concept. He tried everything at once which lead to scenes that were both comical and off putting. In 90 minutes you watch the stress this puts on his family and marriage as well as the fruit flies that take over his kitchen worm box and the degradation of their personal hygiene (which in the United States is a highly regarded custom). I think most people that have a passing interest in this idea thought that there were some good lessons to learn, like I started a worm box (outside; which was eventually destroyed by fruit flies), yet it lacked a positive impact. I believe your blog has the potential to create positive intention in others as you explain the process and make it reachable through gradual change. Good luck!

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    1. That’s interesting about the difference in the US vs UK – my impression is that it started (the recent “zero waste” version) in California, and a lot of the blogs I follow are from there.

      And yes, I am feeling slightly daunted by really fixing what I haven’t done yet but sharing it with people has meant I’ve been given loads of ideas for things to try. Although I’ve also realised there’s lots of items missing from my list! So we’ll see. It’s a journey I guess

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  2. Thanks for this. It´s easy not simply to think that waste goes “away”, but even more insidiously, that there´s nothing that we can do ourselves, and we´d better leave it to the institutions, to the corporations, in fact to anyone except ourselves.
    I´m lucky enough to live in the countryside so that most organic waste simply goes back there to slowly become useful soil. And fruit that isn´t picked (too high, too small) since I live in what used to be an orchard eventually falls on to the ground to be consumed most visibly by the birds that fly in and the deer that wander by.
    This has reached the point that the green bin that the local municipality provides for weekly collections of organic waste remains worryingly empty, so much so that I wonder whether there´s a positive balance out here in the country of sending round truck to collect non-existent waste.
    But the rubbish I do have – and which I then take down to the local recycling centre is of a different kind. It´s mostly cardboard or similar packaging material. Only after it´s built up in the cellar so far that I need to climb past it does a trip take place. And it´s then that another kind of “waste” became apparent. Did I really need to have bought all this “stuff”? Was it really a good idea to have my CISL books delivered by Amazon by post rather than ordering via the local bookshop (and waiting a week or so more)? And would a way to prevent waste simply be to avoid consuming in the first place? Maybe I´ll think about that a little harder After all, it´s easier to declutter, if you don´t have much clutter.

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    1. It’s definitely easy to produce less waste if you buy less stuff!! We’re doing our group project on what makes it hard to buy less stuff so it will be interesting to see what that shows.

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  3. Well done! This sounds very easy but actually I think is a very difficult thing to achieve in real life. I think you have identified a real challenge for everybody to try, however I am concerned by the fact that this issue does not seem to be pushed by mainstream media at all. It is evident that the younger generation are more concerned about this due to an influx of bloggers and social media influencers who are encouraging people to go zero waste, particularly on sites such as Instagram and Pinterest. Consequently, this is clearly going to have an effect on a select few who are actively researching in this area, but it remains to be seen whether this is having an effect on the rest of the general population. This is most effectively demonstrated by yourself who has found enough information on the web, to be able to start your book. It’s a great idea to try and change small things first, before trying to go zero waste!
    How to change the general population’s ideas on the matter is a whole other challenge though. This is especially as it is ingrained in our society as demonstrated by the recent outrage over councils cutting down on the days that bins are going to be collected. This seems to be outrage over the wrong thing. Instead of outrage as to why some families are needing their general landfill bins taking away every week, there should be outrage as to why councils are collecting enough rubbish to go to landfill weekly. This I believe would be an opportunity to educate people, in making small changes (like you’ve suggested in your book) to cut down on the general household waste. Once people are invigorated by this concept, I believe that it would be easier to pressurise larger companies to make more sustainable choices in their own packaging. For example, Waitrose who have recently announced that due to the ‘Blue Planet Effect’ they are stopping wrapping fruit in plastic bags, instead they are replacing them with recyclable paper brown bags.
    Good luck in your challenge – hopefully you will convince your others to follow suit!

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