Why recycling won’t save the world

Overloaded shopping trolleyAll councils have recycling targets. That’s commendable but not the real answer.

There’s a war raging in my area because of a porposal for a waste incinerator in a greenfield site. Oh sorry, it’s not an incinerator, it’s a waste-to-energy plant.

Anyway, semantics aside, I went along to a public meeting hoping to get a balanced argument. I was sadly mistaken. The company involved had refused to attend and what we got was 300 angry residents in a public hall with another 200 irate ones outside because the hall wasn’t big enough.

Now, they’d done their homework. They’d researched the possible nearby brownfield sites it could go on. They’d looked into the heavy metals and ash that would be left as a result of the process. They’d discovered what vapours could possibly be emited from the chimney. They knew how many lorries would trundle up the country road, how much noise they’d make and the volume of diesel fumes they’d pump out. They’d consulted with residents near similar sites around the country. They had even looked at birth defect statistics around similar sites. I was impressed for a minute or two.

Then it was decided that the meeting would move to the swing park so that everyone could join in.

The first thing the majority did when they stepped out the door was light up a cigarette. A large number of them got into four-wheel drives as I walked to the park I noticed that the cigarette butts ended up in the gutter.

So I got to thinking:

  • they don’t want pollution in their air but they don’t mind pumping toxins straight into their lungs
  • they don’t want diesel fumes but they drive gas-guzzling 4x4s when the furthest off-road they go is up the pavement on the school run
  • they don’t want an energy recycling plant but they’re happy to continue creating the same levels of waste

Why do we buy so much stuff? Packaging has a lot to answer for but do we really need the thing inside the packaging anyway?

Supermarkets make it easy to over-buy. Hands up who buys bags of salad? How often do you forget it’s there and sling it straight in the bin, unopened? These scary stats come from Zero Waste Scotland:

  • over £1 billion of food is wasted in Scotland each year – that’s £430 per household
  • half of the good food thrown away is untouched – 1 in 7 items still in its packaging
  • if we stopped wasting all this food, we could prevent the equivalent of 1.7 million tonnes of carbon dioxide each year in Scotland – the same as taking 1 in 4 cars off the road

My work just moved us onto monthly pay and when I think about it I reckon going from a weekly pay packet to a monthly bank transfer has probably resulted in a lot of food waste with people piling their trolley high with a lot of food that will never be eaten. You see them all the time in the supermarket, tentatively steered by someone who can’t see over the multiple boxes of cereal.

We’ve lost touch with where our food comes from and what’s in season. We don’t know where things are made. We’re happy to buy things then throw them away probably before we’ve even paid off our credit card.

OK, so some of us recycle some stuff but how much does the recycling process cost the planet anyway?

What we need to do -before we buy – is to think about the product’s life cycle, not only while it’s in our possession but what will happen to it once we’re finished with it and where it came from in the first place. If you don’t know, find out – you’d be surprised about the provenance of your iPad or your bargain high heels.

If we didn’t buy so much stuff we wouldn’t need waste-to-energy plants.

Think before you buy.

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