In today’s society, we are used to the concept of throwing things away, but there is really no ‘away’. Items or materials we no longer need or want continue to exist in this world, using energy and water and generating emissions and often other forms of pollution in their disposal, and, if not used appropriately, constituting wasted resources. Thus, sustainability requires that we have ‘closed loop’ systems that minimise material use in the first place, re-use materials and products if possible, and recycle everything that can be recycled. This closed loop thinking – the basis of the circular economy – encourages us to consider any materials as having ongoing uses, and any ‘waste’ materials not channeled into some future use as constituting an unwarranted financial and environmental cost.
We can reduce our waste footprint in a number of ways. Low carbon living examples around the world offer some inspiration on how to live a waste free life and receive several benefits in return. Waste issues are also partly discussed in food and shopping.
Waste or material hierarchy helps us to understand the importance of different actions we can take. Yarra Council refers in its Waste and Resource Recovery Strategy to the ‘8R’ hierarchy:
- Refuse – don’t consume what you don’t need to;
- Reduce – reduce consumption of energy and materials;
- Re-use – share with others, find new uses for old objects;
- Repair – fix or upgrade your objects rather than throwing them away;
- Re-gift – share and be part of the gift economy;
- Recover – recover energy and materials, and upcycle;
- Recycle – close the loop and remake.
- And at the heart of all this is ‘Rethink’ – be mindful of your consumption, your relationship with ‘things’ and your relationship with the Earth.
Local councils generally have information on their websites about the things that can be recycled through the council, as well, often, as having a guide to how a wider range of items can be recycled through the council or elsewhere, for example, Yarra Council’s A to Z guide to waste and recycling. If your council doesn’t provide this kind of information you can encourage it to do so.
Here are some actions that one can take to refuse and reduce stuff:
- Plan what and when you purchase, cook and eat; check your fridge and pantry regularly to avoid food wastage.
- Try to notice what and how much you discard regularly.
- Buy more durable, good quality products.
- Say ‘no’ to plastic bags and wrapping, and carry your own reusable shopping. and veggie/fruit bags (you can make your own or use e.g. Fregie Sack).
- Arm yourself with a reusable water bottle.
- Use reusable coffee cups (e.g. KeepCup or Joco).
- Avoid over-processed and over-packaged food.
- Seek alternatives to disposables, e.g. avoid take-away lunches with disposable utensils and plates, ask your drink without straws, use cloth towel instead of paper to dry hands, and replace your plastic bin liner with compostable bags or newspaper (see tips from Zero Waste Home, Plastic Free July campaign, and Plastic free living tips from Plastic Free July).
- Shop in farmers’ markets and shops where you can bring your own containers for food and detergents, such as bulk stores – here’s a bulk store directory to find your nearest one. (However, it should be noted that the carbon footprint of goods sold in markets and small shops may be higher if the goods have been transported in small quantities and less fuel-efficient vehicles.)
- Order a veggie/fruit box (e.g. via Aussie Farmers Direct).
- Use cloth nappies for babies.
- Give nonmaterial gifts, such as experiences or services.
Actions to re-use, repair and re-gift include:
- Buy second-hand
- Sell, exchange or give away unwanted items – e.g. through op-shops or clothing swaps.
- Repair rather than buying new, e.g. with the help of Fix It collaborative workshops (if you’re in Melbourne), or (wherever you are) Fix It open source repair guides for cameras, cars and electronic items.
- Share cars, tools, toys etc; check out the sharing economy links.
Actions to recover and recycle include:
- Compost your food scraps with a back yard compost or worm farm, or ferment them with a Bokashi bin (see Food Know How’s tips, and the Garden section links)
- Recycle your plastic bottles and other hard plastic (no soft plastics like plastic bags or newspaper wrappings), cardboard, paper, metal (cans, cork tops, empty aerosol cans etc.), glass bottles (broken drinking glasses and glass ovenware not suitable for kerbside recycling bins) – this is facilitated by assigning separate bins for recyclables e.g. under the sink
- Give take-away containers a quick clean and remove all food scraps before placing them in the recycling bin (PlanetArk has some good tips for doing your recycling properly).
- Take batteries, electronic waste, polystyrene, soft plastics (like plastic bags) and energy saving light globes (compact fluorescent lamps) and fluorescent tubes to your local recycling depot if you have one.
- Dispose of households chemicals (nail polish, paints, detergents, pesticides etc) appropriately by taking them to a local collection point (you can ask you local council where this is, and if in Victoria, check Sustainability Victoria’s Detox Your Home mobile collection points).
- Soft plastics like plastic bags, bread bags, cling wrap etc. can also be recycled in many Coles, Safeway or Woolworths supermarkets (look for the specially marked REDCycle bins).
- Note that take-away coffee cups often have 5% plastic coating (as this information describes) and may therefore be unsuitable for recycling, though the hard plastic lids are recyclable.
- For mobile phone collection points, check Mobile Muster.
- Your local council may collect green waste and hard waste either through scheduled pick-ups or by arrangement, but use as much of your green waste as you can for compost or mulch.